Empathy: Both a Skill Set and a Mindset


Last month I attended one of Teacher to Teacher’s EngagED Exchange events in Washington D.C. This particular meet-up was focused on how educators can incorporate design thinking into their classroom.

A panel of experts, mostly outside the field of education, discussed how they use design thinking to approach problems. In this discussion, business owner and consultant Coonoor Behal, said something that became my most important take-away of the day: Empathy isn’t simply one skill we can teach. Instead, empathy is a way of thinking resulting from proficiency with a collection of skills. In other words, to effectively teach empathy, we have to understand its components.

Empathy is a mindset resulting from proficiency with a skill set

Empathy has only recently become a priority for my classroom and my own professional development. As I shared in this earlier post, I opened my year by emphasizing the importance of empathy. I did this both as a way to prioritize it and a way of holding myself accountable. By publicly committing to practicing empathy in my interactions with students, I knew it would stay at the forefront of my mind.

But seeing empathy as more than just a lens was important. It helped me understand how to teach it. How to break it down from a huge abstract idea into a set of concrete skills with observable results. How to more clearly embed it in activities and lessons in my classroom.

Coonoor Behal reminded me that to teach something well, we must first struggle to understand it ourselves.

In my classroom, this new understanding allows me to make connections for my students between familiar concepts and building a practice of empathy. As my students lead whole-class discussions, I privately and publicly coach them in skills required to hold a sustained, respectful conversation. I already emphasize the importance of active listening, clarifying questions, and paraphrasing. Now I can connect these skills to a practice and mindset of empathy for their classmate’s perspectives and views.

As students learn to construct a strong argument through writing or speaking, I can remind them that the strongest arguments are able to listen with humility to opposing viewpoints–in other words, empathize with those who think differently. To help them actually practice that skill, I can ask them to paraphrase an opposing argument, pointing to motivations that would lead a person to hold these beliefs. Then my feedback can help students understand how developing this skill is also developing empathy for others.

Of course there are a thousand more ways to help students see how the skills of listening, curiosity (asking questions), and humility directly impact the big skill of empathy. These are just the hatchlings.

I read this blog post recently where a teacher (and parent) outlined how she learned to explicitly build empathy into her own family as well as her classroom. So I’m curious to know more from teachers, parents, and professionals–How can we better understand and therefore more effectively teach empathy?

How can we better understand and therefore more effectively teach empathy?

What other skills do you see as crucial to building empathy within yourself and your classrooms or workplaces?

What connections can you make for your children or students to help them understand empathy and practice it in their daily interactions?

I look forward to learning together.

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