How to teach empathy to adults

Empathy comes more easily to some, but it’s possible to learn it!

THE BASICS

  • The Importance of Empathy
  • Find a therapist near me

How to teach empathy to adults

Your relationship with others determines much of your happiness and success in life. How you get along with coworkers, bosses, family, friends, and romantic partners often depends on your social skills, and at the root of good social skills is one thing: empathy.

Empathy means the ability to understand and share the feelings and experiences of another. In other words, empathy is imagining yourself in someone else’s skin: feeling what they feel and seeing yourself and the world from their point of view. As the character Atticus Finch says in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Empathy adds depth to the love you feel for others. With empathy, you see those you love for who they are, not whom you imagine or wish them to be. You appreciate them for their qualities, not just what they do for you, and you acknowledge that even when you share the same experience, you may have different thoughts and feelings. Without empathy, you might assume that their needs, boundaries, and experiences are the same as yours and as a result, you can make assumptions that get you into trouble.

Empathy comes more easily to some, but it’s possible to learn it even if you’re not the most naturally empathetic person. To learn empathy, try this exercise:

  1. Think about your significant other or a friend, family member, or coworker.
  2. What has their mood been like in recent days?
  3. What’s going on in this person’s life that might be making them happy or sad, anxious, or angry?
  4. How are you contributing?
  5. What could you do or say to improve this person’s situation?

For example, let’s say you’re married, and your partner has acted anxious and angry lately. They come home from work agitated, and tension between you runs high. Last night at dinner, they ruminated so much about their day at work that they barely spoke to you, and when they did talk it was to complain about their long commute.

The non-empathetic response would be to snap at them, remind them that your commute is longer, and angrily respond when they don’t ask about your day. That might feel good to do in the moment, and it might be “true,” but is that response helpful? Would it make your relationship better? Would it improve your life or your partner’s life?

No, it would not. Instead, it would make everything much, much worse.

Here’s an example of the empathy exercise at work:

  1. Think about your partner.
  2. Think about how your partner has been very stressed out the last couple of days.
  3. Think about what’s been going on in your partner’s life that may be leading them to feel stressed. Are they working longer hours than usual? Were they passed over for a promotion? Did a coworker or boss say or do something that upset them? You may not know the particulars, but if your partner comes home from work anxious and agitated every day, it’s pretty safe to assume something unpleasant happened at the office.
  4. Go over the last couple of days and think about how you may have contributed to your partner’s situation. You may not be the cause of it, but are you making them feel better or worse? Imagine yourself in the same situation. If you were having a hard time at work, how would you feel if you came home to a partner who snapped at you for complaining about your job?
  5. Finally, consider things you could do or say to improve your partner’s situation. People show and accept affection in different ways. While you may appreciate little gifts as a sign of love, your partner may appreciate actions more. Could you make them something for dinner you know they’ll enjoy? Give them a back rub? Think about what you know would lift your partner’s mood, not what you would like in the same situation.

Empathy–developed by regularly listening to another person’s thoughts and feelings–helps to build both closeness and respect. To know if you’re practicing empathy when talking to someone, keep this empathy checklist in mind:

  • Focus your attention on them when they’re talking. Don’t fidget or check your phone or gaze out the window.
  • Indicate that you’re listening by looking them in the eyes when they speak, nodding when you understand, and touching their hand or using another gesture to indicate your connection.
  • Show your respect by hearing them out without sarcasm or rejection. If you feel yourself getting angry or annoyed, ask to take a break. Get a glass of water and drink it slowly to give yourself time to mindfully re-center yourself.
  • Repeat what they say in your own words to make sure you’re hearing them correctly or ask questions if you’re not clear about their meaning.
  • Validate their emotions. Even if you don’t agree with an opinion, you can acknowledge the person’s right to their feelings.

THE BASICS

  • The Importance of Empathy
  • Find a therapist near me

When you act with empathy toward others, others will respond with empathy toward you. With the empathy exercise and the empathy checklist, you’ve got everything you need to learn and practice this crucial social skill.

What Is It?

Empathy is the quality of being in tune with the emotions of others. Sometimes the term empathy refers to the ability to imagine and understand how other people might be thinking or feeling (what researchers call cognitive empathy or perspective-taking); other times it indicates the capacity to sense others’ emotions and experience feelings that mirror theirs (referred to as emotional or affective empathy).

A white teacher whose racial and economic background differs from most of his students recognizes that his ability to empathize with his students may be limited. To grow his empathy, he takes the time to get to know his students on a personal basis by asking them about their interests, their families, their hopes and dreams. He also makes an effort to spend time in the community where students live, which helps him to question his assumptions about his students, and ultimately see the tremendous strengths that they are bringing to the classroom.

Though empathy alone does not guarantee positive behavior—in fact, if other social-emotional skills are lacking, empathy can be overwhelming and counterproductive—it is often considered a vital foundation of morality and prosocial (kind and helpful) action. Empathy is what enables us to extend beyond our own point of view and truly care for each other.

Why Is It Important?

Because it helps us understand the perspectives, needs, and intentions of others, empathy is a building block of morality and a key ingredient of successful relationships.

Individual Therapy, Premarital Preparation, Couples Counseling, Parent Support

How to teach empathy to adults

How to teach empathy to adults

Maybe you’ve already heard of him?

Dubbed “One of Britain’s leading lifestyle philosophers” by The Observer this chap has 436 links to his name in the newspaper’s search function (as of June 10th, 2015 anyway). They LOVE this guy. He’s the author of

  • The Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live(published in the US as How Should We Live?); which explores what we can learn from the past about better living;
  • How to Find Fulfilling Work, part of The School of Life’s practical philosophy series edited by Alain de Botton;
  • The First Beautiful Game: Stories of Obsession in Real Tennis about what sport can teach us about life;
  • His blog Outrospection, dedicated to empathy and the art of living;
  • An RSA Animate video The Power of Outrospection, already seen by over half a million.

And now, having reviewed some of his impressive body of work on empathy and more, I’m a wholehearted fan as well.

  • Q: So, who IS this guy?
  • A: Roman Krznaric
  • Q: Why the fuss?
  • A: Well, with regard to the subject of empathy – understanding it, seeing the relevance of it, noticing the historical sweep of it, fostering it, and teaching it – Mr. Roman Krznaric (pronounced Kruz-Na-Ric) rules the turf. It makes no sense for me to reinvent this wheel. Instead I’m going to do two simple things here today.
  1. Summarize Krznaric’s six habits of highly empathic people and link it to the original article published in The Daily Good.
  2. Embed a 20 minute You Tube video of Roman giving this talk for those who prefer visuals.

1. Six Habits of Highly Empathic People – abbreviated.

Habit 1: Cultivate curiosity about strangers “Cultivating curiosity requires more than having a brief chat about the weather. Crucially, it tries to understand the world inside the head of the other person. We are confronted by strangers every day, like the heavily tattooed woman who delivers your mail or the new employee who always eats his lunch alone. Set yourself the challenge of having a conversation with one stranger every week. All it requires is courage.”

Habit 2: Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities “We all have assumptions about others and use collective labels—e.g., “Muslim fundamentalist,” “welfare mom”—that prevent us from appreciating their individuality. HEPs challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what they share with people rather than what divides them.”

Habit 3: Try another person’s life “So you think ice climbing and hang-gliding are extreme sports? Then you need to try experiential empathy, the most challenging—and potentially rewarding—of them all. HEPs expand their empathy by gaining direct experience of other people’s lives, putting into practice the Native American proverb, Walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticize him.”

Habit 4: Listen hard—and open up “There are two traits required for being an empathic conversationalist. One is to master the art of radical listening. “What is essential,” says Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist and founder of Non-Violent Communication (NVC), “is our ability to be present to what’s really going on within—to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that very moment.” HEPs listen hard to others and do all they can to grasp their emotional state and needs, whether it is a friend who has just been diagnosed with cancer or a spouse who is upset at them for working late yet again. But listening is never enough. The second trait is to make ourselves vulnerable. Removing our masks and revealing our feelings to someone is vital for creating a strong empathic bond. Empathy is a two-way street that, at its best, is built upon mutual understanding—an exchange of our most important beliefs and experiences.”

Habit 5: Inspire mass action and social change “We typically assume empathy happens at the level of individuals, but HEPs understand that empathy can also be a mass phenomenon that brings about fundamental social change. Just think of the movements against slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries on both sides of the Atlantic. As journalist Adam Hochschild reminds us, “The abolitionists placed their hope not in sacred texts but human empathy,” doing all they could to get people to understand the very real suffering on the plantations and slave ships. Equally, the international trade union movement grew out of empathy between industrial workers united by their shared exploitation. The overwhelming public response to the Asian tsunami of 2004 emerged from a sense of empathic concern for the victims, whose plight was dramatically beamed into our homes on shaky video footage.”

Habit 6: Develop an ambitious imagination “A final trait of HEPs is that they do far more than empathize with the usual suspects. We tend to believe empathy should be reserved for those living on the social margins or who are suffering. This is necessary, but it is hardly enough. We also need to empathize with people whose beliefs we don’t share or who may be “enemies” in some way. If you are a campaigner on global warming, for instance, it may be worth trying to step into the shoes of oil company executives—understanding their thinking and motivations—if you want to devise effective strategies to shift them towards developing renewable energy. A little of this “instrumental empathy” (sometimes known as “impact anthropology”) can go a long way.”

If this whet your appetite for the full article, click → The Six Habits of Highly Empathic People.

2. Six Habits of Highly Empathic People – the movie.

FIRST TIME HERE?

This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list. How to teach empathy to adults

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.

OVERVIEW

SKILLS FOR UNDERSTANDING

SKILL ONE

Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO

Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

SKILL THREE

Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity

SKILLS FOR CONNECTING

SKILL FOUR

Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE

Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX

Crack The Empathy Nut

  • Thriving Through Tough Times
  • Teaching Empathy to Adults

Empathy is a quality that is integral to most people’s lives – and yet the modern world makes it easy to lose sight of the feelings of others. But almost everyone can learn to develop this crucial personality trait, says Roman Krznaric.

Open Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird and one line will jump out at you: “You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Human beings are naturally primed to embrace this message. According to the latest neuroscience research, 98% of people (the exceptions include those with psychopathic tendencies) have the ability to empathise wired into their brains – an in-built capacity for stepping into the shoes of others and understanding their feelings and perspectives.

The problem is that most don’t tap into their full empathic potential in everyday life.

You can easily find yourself passing by a mother struggling with a pram on some steps as you rush to a work meeting, or read about a tragic earthquake in a distant country then let it slip your mind as you click a link to check the latest football results.

The empathy gap can appear in personal relationships too – like when I find myself shouting in frustration at my six-year-old twins, or fail to realise that my partner is doing more than her fair share of the housework.

So is there anything you can do to boost your empathy levels? The good news is that almost everyone can learn to be more empathic, just like we can learn to ride a bike or drive a car.

A good warm up is to do a quick assessment of your empathic abilities. Neuropsychologist Simon Baron-Cohen has devised a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes in which you are shown 36 pairs of eyes and have to choose one of four words that best describes what each person is feeling or thinking – for instance, jealous, arrogant, panicked or hateful.

The average score of around 26 suggests that the majority of people are surprisingly good – though far from perfect – at visually reading others’ emotions.

Going a step further, there are three simple but powerful strategies for unleashing the empathic potential that is latent in our neural circuitry.

Make a habit of “radical listening”

“What is essential,’ wrote Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist and founder of Non-Violent Communication, “is our ability to be present to what’s really going on within – to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing at that very moment.”

Listening out for people’s feelings and needs – whether it is a friend who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer or a spouse who is upset at you for working late yet again – gives them a sense of being understood.

Let people have their say, hold back from interrupting and even reflect back what they’ve told you so they knew you were really listening. There’s a term for doing this – “radical listening”.

Radical listening can have an extraordinary impact on resolving conflict situations. Rosenberg points out that in employer-employee disputes, if both sides literally repeat what the other side just said before speaking themselves, conflict resolution is reached 50% faster.

Look for the human behind everything

A second step is to deepen empathic concern for others by developing an awareness of all those individuals hidden behind the surface of our daily lives, on whom we may depend in some way. A Buddhist-inspired approach to this is to spend a whole day becoming mindful of every person connected to your routine actions.

So when you have your morning coffee, think about the people who picked the coffee beans. As you button your shirt, consider the labour behind the label by asking yourself: “Who sewed on these buttons? Where in the world are they? What are their lives like?”

Then continue throughout the day, bringing this curiosity to who is driving the train, vacuuming the office floor or stacking the supermarket shelves. It is precisely such mindful awareness that can spark empathic action on the behalf of others, whether it’s buying Fairtrade coffee or becoming friends with the office cleaner.

Bertolt Brecht wrote a wonderful poem about this called A Worker Reads History, which begins: “Who built the seven gates of Thebes? / The books are filled with the names of kings / Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?”

Become curious about strangers

I used to regularly walk past a homeless man around the corner from where I live in Oxford and take virtually no notice of him. One day I stopped to speak to him.

It turned out his name was Alan Human and he had a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Oxford. We subsequently developed a friendship based on our mutual interest in Aristotle’s ethics and pepperoni pizza.

This encounter taught me that having conversations with strangers opens up our empathic minds. We can not only meet fascinating people but also challenge the assumptions and prejudices that we have about others based on their appearance, accents or backgrounds.

It’s about recovering the curiosity everyone had as children, but which society is so good at beating out of us. Get beyond superficial talk but beware interrogating people. Respect the advice of oral historian Studs Terkel – who always spoke to people on the bus on his daily commute: “Don’t be an examiner, be the interested inquirer.”

These are the kinds of conversations you will find happening at the world’s first Empathy Museum, which is launching in the UK in late 2015 and will then be travelling to Australia and other countries.

Amongst the unusual exhibitions will be a human library, where instead of borrowing a book you borrow a person for conversation – maybe a Sikh teenager, an unhappy investment banker or a gay father. In other words, the kind of people you may not get to meet in everyday life.

Empathy is the cornerstone of healthy human relationships.

As the psychologist and inventor of emotional intelligence Daniel Goleman puts it, without empathy a person is “emotionally tone deaf”.

It’s clear that with a little effort nearly everyone can put more of their empathic potential to use. So try slipping on your empathy shoes and make an adventure of looking at the world through the eyes of others.

More from the Magazine

Parts of the NHS have come under fire in recent years, with David Cameron among those calling for health professionals to show more compassion. But Tom Shakespeare asks if there are dangers in placing too much emphasis on empathy.

Roman Krznaric is the author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It – on which this article is based – and is founder of the Empathy Museum and Empathy Library .

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine’s email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.

Top Stories

England removing Portugal from travel green list

No new countries are added to the foreign travel green lists – and Portugal is set to be moved to amber.

How to teach empathy to adults

AMV Photo / Getty Images

Compassion involves the ability to feel empathy for others. This ability to understand the suffering of other people is an important component that motivates prosocial behaviors, or the desire to help. The ability to feel compassion for another person requires also having empathy and awareness. You need to be able to understand what another person is facing and understand what it might be like to be in their place.

It is important to note that compassion involves more than just empathy. Compassion helps people feel what others are feeling, but also compels them to help others and relieve their suffering. Until recently, scientists knew very little about whether compassion could be cultivated or taught.

Utilizing Meditation to Teach Compassion

In one study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers found that not only can adults learn to be more compassionate, teaching compassion could also result in more altruistic behaviors and actually lead to changes in the brain.  

The evidence suggests that not only can adults learn to be more compassionate, but that learning compassion can lead to lasting changes in how a person thinks and acts.

How exactly did researchers teach compassion? In the study, young adults were taught to engage in compassionate meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique intended to increase caring feelings for people who are experiencing suffering.

 How exactly does this meditation work? While meditating, the participants were asked to imagine a time when someone was suffering. They then rehearsed wishing for the relief of that person’s suffering.

The participants were also asked to practice experiencing compassion for different types of people, starting with someone they would easily feel compassion for, such as a family member or close friend. They were then asked to practice feeling compassion for a stranger, as well as for someone they had a conflict with.

Another group of participants called the control group, was trained in a technique known as cognitive reappraisal in which people learn to reframe their thoughts in order to feel less negative.

The researchers wanted to determine if people could learn to change their habits over a relatively short period of time, so both groups of participants received Internet training for a period of 30 minutes every day for two weeks.

Putting the Compassion Training to the Test

What sort of impact did this compassion training have? How did it compare to the results of the control group?

The researchers wanted to know if compassion training would help the participants become more altruistic. The participants were asked to play a game in which they could spend their own money to help another person in need. The game involved playing with two other anonymous people online, one who was a “Dictator” and one who was a “Victim.” As the participant watched the Dictator share an unfair amount of money with the Victim, the participant could then decide how much of their own money to share and then redistribute the money between the Dictator and the Victim.

The results revealed that those trained in compassion were more likely to spend their own money to help the player who had been treated unfairly, an example of altruistic behavior. These players were more likely to engage in this altruism than those in the control group who had been trained in cognitive reappraisal.  

Compassion Training Changes the Brain

The researchers also wanted to see what kind of impact this compassion training had on the brain. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) both before and after training, researchers were able to see how compassion meditation influenced brain activity.

What they observed was that those participants who were more likely to be altruistic after the compassion training had an increase in brain activity in the inferior parietal cortex, an area of the brain associated with empathy and understanding for other people. Other regions of the brain associated with positive emotions and emotional regulation also showed an increase in activity.  

The researchers suggest that like many other abilities, compassion is a skill that can be improved with practice.

The researchers believe that the results of the study offer exciting possibilities for helping people build compassion, thus transforming the lives of many. Healthy adults are not the only ones who can benefit from such training. Teaching children and adults compassion might help reduce bullying and help those who struggle with social issues.  

The Importance of Teaching Compassion

Why is it important to know that compassion can be learned, even in adults? Because compassion is a central component of so many prosocial behaviors including altruism and heroism. Before we take action to help another person, it is important that we not only understand the individual’s situation but that we also feel the drive to relieve his or her suffering.

According to some researchers, compassion involves three key things:

  • First, people must feel that the problems another person is facing are serious.
  • They must also believe that these troubles are not self-inflicted. When people believe that a person’s predicament is their own fault, they are less likely to empathize and less likely to help.
  • Finally, people must be able to picture themselves in a similar situation facing the same problems.  

It may seem like a tall order, but the research suggests that compassion is something that we can learn.

Not only can we learn how to become more compassionate, but building this emotional ability can also lead us to take action and help those around us.

A Word From Verywell

In today’s busy world, it is all too easy to feel that people have lost their connection with one another. Sometimes the onslaught of bad news can lead people to feel that there is little they can do to change what is happening in the world.

Research suggests, however, that compassion is a skill that can be learned and strengthened. Perhaps by learning how to increase our compassion, people can build deeper, more meaningful connections with others that will inspire good works, helpful actions, and simple human kindness.  

Empathy is very important for students and adults to have. I strongly believe that empathy is one of the most important “soft skills” that teachers can cultivate and grow in children. The ability to have empathy for others saves a lot of conflict and negative feelings from both sides…the person receiving empathy and the person giving empathy. Because I feel so strongly about this, I wanted to put together a set of free resources for teaching empathy (and perspective) that were age appropriate and relevant to students in grades 4-5.

How to teach empathy to adults

Teaching Empathy and Perspective

A few things to remember in regards to teaching empathy (from my experience):

1. Students naturally fall on a spectrum in regards to having empathy. Some have a lot of empathy naturally, some can cultivate it fairly quickly with some modeling, and some need a bit more work to really learn how to show empathy and why it is important.

2. Teaching empathy is not a one and done deal. It is something that should be explored organically all throughout the year.

Here are some ways to do this:

  • Model empathy for students and collegues
  • Read-alouds are an excellent way to model how to show empathy toward characters who have different experiences than our own
  • Encourage empathy among students when they have disagreements with their classmates. There are so many opportunities that naturally arise throughout the year to model and encourage empathy. Once you start to look for them and notice, you will see them everywhere. And it doesn’t have to be a huge thing. It can be a very simple 1-2 minute conversation.

Free Resources for Teaching Empathy and Perspective

To help you introduce and teach the concept of empathy, I have a set of free instructional materials that you can use. This section will go through each empathy activity and then a link to download the activities can be found in the section titled: Download the FREE Empathy and Perspective Activities Here

About the Empathy and Perspective Activities

1. What is Empathy? Text

This text introduces the students to the concept of empathy and prepares them for the situations that they will analyze.

How to teach empathy to adults

2. Was Empathy Shown? Scenarios

For this empathy activity, the students will read short scenarios and determine if empathy was shown toward the main character. If it was shown, they will highlight or underline it. If it was not shown, they will discuss some ways that it could have been shown. There are 10 of these in all.

How to teach empathy to adults

3. Paired Perspective Activities

This next of set of activities is where it all comes together. The students read a story written using a 3rd person point of view that describes a negative situation involving a character. However, the narrator does not reveal any details about the character’s life or experiences.

Then, the students read a 1st person point of view story from the perspective of that character. The 1st person point of view story reveals important details that will help the students have empathy for that character.

This is so important for showing students the importance of listening, asking questions, not assuming, and just really trying to see someone else’s perspective. There are four paired activities in all.

How to teach empathy to adults

Printable and Digital Versions

To make these usable no matter what school looks like or how you are providing instruction, the activities are included in a printable and digital format.

The digital format has a few different versions for the situations and stories. You will find the ones shown above and then a version with only the stories. This is great for in-class discussions. You can display the situations or stories via an interactive whiteboard and then facilitate a discussion with the students.

Ideas for Using the FREE Empathy and Perspective Activities

I highly recommend you use these activities as a whole group activity or as an independent/small group activity that then transitions to a whole group discussion. I do not recommend these be assigned as independent activities without that powerful discussion piece.

These can be used at any point in the year and in any capacity but here are two recommendations if you need ideas for how to incorporate this into your instruction:

Beginning of the Year – Use these empathy activities to set the stage for the rest of the year. Then continue to model and point of empathy through read alouds and interactions with students.

Morning Meetings/ Friday Meetings – These are excellent activities to use for morning meetings or Friday class meetings.

Who Can Use These Empathy and Perspective Activities?

Anyone who works directly with students.

To be more specific, here are some school staff members who may really benefit from the use of these materials with their students.

  1. Classroom Teachers
  2. Guidance Counselors
  3. Support Teachers Who Pull Out for Instruction (and still want to set the tone and build a community of learners)

Download the FREE Empathy and Perspective Activities Here

How to teach empathy to adults

I truly hope this resource is helpful to you and your students.

Essential Questions

  • What is empathy? How can empathy help a group, such as a community or society, achieve a goal?
  • How can empathy improve communication?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will experience the value of the skill of empathy by playing a game that requires understanding the perspectives and goals of others in order to succeed.
  • Students will practice hard empathy by identifying the opposing view on an issue they read about in a newspaper article.
  • Students will be able to use empathy and their understanding of differing perspectives to strengthen their own communication.

Overview

This lesson is an introduction to the concept of empathy as a way to improve communication. Students will begin the lesson by playing the game Empathy Builders, which will allow them to experience the value of understanding others’ perspectives in a game-like setting. Students will then debrief the game in order to solidify their understanding of the concept of empathy. Next they will read two opposing op-ed pieces (ideally from a local newspaper and focused on a local issue) and will try to explain the issue by reporting on the opposing viewpoint. Through these activities, students will improve their understanding of empathy, their ability to explain the value of empathy in achieving a desired outcome, and their ability to understand the perspective of someone who thinks differently than they do.

Context

The activities in this lesson help students practice and reflect on hard empathy. For background information on this concept, we recommend watching the video Practicing Empathy with Jane McGonigal. In this video, McGonigal defines hard empathy and describes current research into its effects and benefits.

Notes to Teacher

To prepare for this lesson, visit the Empathy Builders website and complete the instructions for setting up the game. Download the Instructions and Rules and print enough pages of Role Cards for groups of 5–7 to have one sheet each. You will need to cut out the seven cards from each sheet. You will also need 18 colored blocks per group (most math departments have these) and paper lunch bags or other bags from which students may draw blocks.

How to teach empathy to adults

Empathy is a word that is being brought up in the context of business a lot these days. In fact, I just did a Google search for “empathy and business” and noticed that there were almost 30 million results.

But doesn’t empathy fall into that “touchy feely” category that is more relevant to personal relationships than to business relationships?

Although many people still seem to feel that way, I believe empathy is one of the most crucial skills we can possess for professional success, especially as leaders. I’m not alone.

Here are a few of the titles of articles that come up on the first page of the Google search for “empathy and business”:

  • Empathy in Business Is Vital to an Entrepreneur’s Success
  • What’s Empathy Got to Do With It? – Mind Tools – www.mindtools.com › Leadership Skills
  • Empathy in Business: Indulgence or Invaluable? – Forbes –
  • Empathy in the Workplace – Center for Creative Leadership
  • Corporate Empathy Is Not an Oxymoron – Harvard Business.
  • The One Skill Most Leaders Lack – why-empathy-is-key-to-business-s.
  • The growing importance of empathy in business – www.economistinsights.com

Although there are many reasons why empathy is so important, the core reason is quite simple: ultimately, everything in business comes down to relationships.

An organization comprised of people who are ineffective at creating and sustaining healthy relationships with the end customer will eventually fail. Conversely, an organization comprised of people who are highly effective at creating and sustaining healthy relationships – with both internal and external customers – has a tremendous competitive advantage.

Empathy is one of the core elements of those relationships so crucial for success. In order to connect with people at the human level, we need to be able to understand the perspectives, emotions, and motivations of others.

Fortunately, we don’t need to be born with high levels of empathy to excel in this area. Empathy is something we can train to develop. By actually practicing empathetic skills, we can change our brains in ways that allow us to be more empathetic in the future.

Training for Empathy

Some of the tools we can employ to develop our empathy skills include the following:

  • Try to be really curious about other people, imagining what might be going in their lives
  • Take time to consider what we have in common with people and pay more attention to that, instead of focusing on what makes us different
  • During conversation, try to ask more questions and spend more time listening

Mindfulness training is also a powerful tool for developing empathy. Research in neuroscience suggests that the insula is an area of the brain that is very important for empathy. Some studies have also shown that intermediate level practitioners of mindfulness have thicker insula compared to matched controls, suggesting that mindfulness training significantly changes the brain in ways that improve empathy.

Behavioral studies have shown similar findings. For example, in a study conducted by Paul Condon and Dave DeSteno of Northeastern University, and Gaelle Desbordes of Massachusetts General Hospital, the research team sent a group of people to an eight-week mindfulness training course. Afterwards, they tested the people who received the mindfulness training versus people who had no mindfulness training.

Each subject was tested to see how they responded when a woman on crutches wearing a medical boot, who gave visible and audible signals of being in pain, entered a waiting room with only three chairs in it. The test subject sat in one of the chairs, and the other two chairs were occupied by two members of the research team who were not going to give up their seat.

Only 16% of the members of the control group gave up their seats for the woman on crutches. However, 50% of the members of the test group gave up their seats. The study suggests that only eight weeks of mindfulness training is enough to significantly increase our ability to empathize with another person.

Because the insula is also associated with self-awareness, to exercise that part of the brain we should make the effort to be more aware of our bodies during daily activities and take some time each day to be still, making the effort to maintain awareness of the body without being distracted by thinking. An excellent exercise for improving such body awareness is the body scan.

For those of us who would like to take our empathy training to an even higher level, we could practice a kindness mediation whenever we’re sitting still and waiting for a minutes, especially during any time dedicated to intentional sitting still practice.

I like to practice a variation of a kindness meditation in public places. I take a moment to be aware of my own mind and body, allowing the mind to settle a bit. Then, I take a look at person to remember her/his face, look away (so she/he doesn’t think I’m stalking her/him), and send her/him well wishes and the energy of kindness for a few breaths. Depending on how much time I have between worldly tasks I need to accomplish, I may choose few people to practice with.

This is not only a way to develop the empathy that makes us more successful as leaders and in business, it is a wonderful way to experience a few moments of joy during what would normally be rather mundane, or even anxiety-producing moments.

Matt Tenney is a social entrepreneur, an international keynote speaker, and the author of Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom.