3 Key Lessons on Empathy
I did the last internship for my teaching credential in a rural town in Nicaragua, volunteering at a local NGO – Los Pipitos – that supported children with disabilities. During my time there, I worked alongside a promotora de salud (community health professional), Martha; the most patient human being I have ever met, I learned everything I know about empathy from her.
Martha and I used to walk several hours a day in the dusty trails of Yalagüina, trying to reach the homes where children with disabilities lived. Most of these families could not afford to send their children to a special education school or even to the local public school, therefore Los Pipitos educated the families so they could support their kids’ growth and development at home. During the many hours we spent walking, Martha and I developed a close friendship. She always answered my many questions about Nicaragua’s culture, politics and poverty with patience and care. Martha had an amazing capacity to connect with the families we visited and show love and concern, even when the things we saw and experienced were difficult.
These are 3 key lessons that I learned about empathy from watching Martha relate to others.
1. Empathy starts with self-awareness. Empathy is being able to walk in someone else’s shoes, to feel with them. Having a son with cerebral palsy herself, Martha had walked similar paths than the families we visited. Although it was difficult to watch people in pain, sometimes denial, Martha was able to connect with her own emotions, so she could open her heart to these families.
As teachers and parents, this self-awareness helps us to be more present in any given situation. It can be difficult to model empathy for our students or our own children, to connect with their feelings, if we are still thinking about work, an argument we had earlier that day or the endless to-do list. Once we have been able to check-in with ourselves, even if it means connecting with uncomfortable feelings, we’ll be in a better position to connect with others.
2. Empathy heals. Another important lesson that I learned from my dear friend is that when we are able to show empathy for others, they feel accepted and understood. We often encountered families that were skeptical of the help we could provide or scared that we would take their child away. Martha was able to validate their feelings, whatever they were, opening the door for conversation and connection.
When we show empathy for children and youth, or other adults, and we connect with their feelings, that connection and care is healing to whatever they are going through. Showing empathy makes the relationships with our children and students deeper and stronger.
3. Empathy teaches Empathy. I learned the power of empathy by watching Martha connect with people in the community. When she talked and related to others, she did it from the heart. Martha modeled empathy by connecting with people’s emotions, and also by talking about people’s behaviors without judgment.
Children learn how to show empathy from their parents and caregivers, so when adults around them show empathy towards others, they are teaching empathy with their actions. Mary Gordon, the founder of Roots of Empathy, says that empathy can’t be taught in traditional ways, it can only be taught experientially.
As we have seen, in order to show empathy, we need to have some clarity about our own feelings and leave room for the other person to take the stage, being fully present for them. Many people have a difficult time showing empathy, because it means going to a painful place within themselves. Part of showing empathy is being able to manage our own anxiety about the feelings of others and grow to accept them. Empathy, like other social and emotional skills, can be learned and developed over time.
Here are 3 things you can do to develop your empathy.
- Listen without solving. Tell yourself “I am here to listen”. If you find yourself coming up with ways to solve the problem, go back to my earlier post Are You Listening? for tips on how to become a better listener. Be patient, the other person might not be ready to solve the situation yet.
- Validate and reflect. Serve as a mirror to the other person. Acknowledge his/her emotions and (maybe) help them connect to the triggers: “You seem angry about the game getting cancelled”, “You sure are upset with me”.
- Resonate: Match your reaction with his/her mood. Connect with your own emotions by asking yourself “Have I felt this way before?”. Offer comfort, without distracting the person from their own feelings.
Empathy helps people connect with each other at deeper levels, is healing and builds trust. You can develop your empathy by listening without solving, validating the other person’s feelings and resonating with them. It’s never too late to begin noticing when and how you show empathy, and start using the three strategies outlined above. Give it a try and let me know how it goes! I’d love to hear from you.