Instructions for empathy
1. Take a pair of glasses – big lenses are better
2. Cover them in sticky tape, so that wearing them is like looking through the bottom of a dirty Coke bottle
3. Walk around – try and do stuff
4. You might find that you laugh, even if it’s a little uncomfortable – because it’s hard to function like that, and you can take them off if you really had to…
5. Feel more empathetic yet?
You might if you were a medical student…
Does your doctor lack empathy?
Work at Jefferson Medical College shows that empathy drops in medical students, just as they’re about to move from the classroom to the clinic; from lectures to hands on practice. This is bad news for patients, who tend to receive worse care. Additionally, the doctors themselves enjoy the work less as a result.
But, happily, it’s not all doom and gloom. In a study carried out in 2006, Prathibha Varkey and colleagues put medical students through a simulated game, what they called The Aging Game, aimed at increasing empathy.
The gimmick was simple, but effective.
Among other things, students had to wear tape-covered glasses that mimicked the loss of vision people experience with cataracts. While the subject group was small, the results were compelling. Empathy with older patients increased just with a simple role play.
Which is great news when we want to think about teaching our kids empathy, because it gives us some good insight into what we can do as parents or teachers.
When can we start teaching our kids?
Back a little we talked about similarity as one of the key features of empathy. What we mean is that we’re much, much more likely to be empathetic to someone we believe is similar to us in some way.
It might be any one of a number of ways – such as race or some other demographic – and the similarity can be real or imagined. Regardless, a sense of similarity helps decrease the emotional distance between us and another person, significantly increasing the likelihood of empathy.
And it’s not just obvious similarities like race or gender but, as the medical students show, with another person’s situation. For example, most of us have been socially snobbed or shunned, and can understand what it feels like when we see it happen to someone else. Even if that person seems different from us, we recognize the situation.
Consequently, one of our early goals with kids is to help them draw parallels between others and themselves, or with situations.
With our kids, we have the benefit of starting them young, so even if they haven’t actually experienced a situation, they can imagine it, and so draw the parallels. We talked a little about a concept called Theory of Mind which is, simply, the capacity to understand that while we have knowledge, values, motives and so on, so do other people, and theirs might be different from mine.
Typically, this ability begins at about age three or four, which is, therefore, a great time to start with our kids.
Naturally, any opportunity you have with your kids to help them appreciate another person’s mind is beneficial for them in developing empathy. This might take the form of role-playing games, by asking questions about things you see together during the day or if you read a story together at night or, as we said, by imagining things with them. This makes the opportunities pretty limitless, really.
The key bit is to help kids generate the similarities themselves. They’ll need more input at the start, and we can help them by prompting them with questions about what’s going on, what might have happened or is about to happen and, critically, what people could be thinking and feeling. We then apply these things to our kid’s situation.
How would this be if it were you? What would you think, feel, or do? Can you put yourself in their situation? And so on. Even young children can get their heads around this well enough for you to be building their capacity for empathy.
Language and other conditions
An important skill that sits alongside this, is for kids to be able to identify their own feelings, and to talk about them with you. In here fits the coaching and modelling that parents can provide for their kids in how we respond to situations, the empathy we display, how we understand and talk about our own emotions, and how we manage our own emotions.
You might remember that the ability to regulate our emotions is another pillar of emotional intelligence, and being able to talk rationally about them with a trusted parent is a great help. Our kids get to grips with what they feel and why, how they experience these emotions, what they mean and they learn, subsequently, how better to manage themselves.
So for us as parents or teachers, we need to be able to identify emotions in a reasoned way, and be able to talk about them with our kids. They’ll see how we react, learn what we say, and draw conclusions from what they see us do as well as what we say to them.
So here’s the take home bit
Just like the medical students, our kids are capable of learning how to be empathetic. We can teach them to take another’s view, we can model self-regulation of emotions, talk rationally about emotions, and help our kids understand how other people feel.
Finding similarities is the key here, which we can do by role-playing, talking about things we see, or by using good old-fashioned imagination, coaching kids along the way regarding how they can react.
Or you can try buying some oversized glasses…
Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat
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