Start this lesson by explaining the importance of empathy. Recall that empathy forms the foundation of cooperative and prosocial behaviour, fuels social connection and communicates cohesion.
Let students know that throughout this school year, they may share challenging stories, be burdened by overwhelming emotions, or endure adverse events. During these moments, as well as any other moment, it is necessary for them to practice empathy - to understand what another person is experiencing and walk a mile in their shoes.
Mention that, by practicing empathy, students are helping to create a braver, more connected classroom. Remind students that everyone agreed to practice empathy by signing the classroom empathy commitment and that they will be held accountable for their actions. Then, reiterate that students may sometimes miss the opportunity to show empathy or they may get empathy “wrong”. In these moments, students can ask to circle back so that they can clean up the mess and try again.
Explain that students can ask to circle back in the moment (ex. if they realize that their conversation has taken a wrong turn) or after the initial interaction (ex. the next day when they realize that attempting to connect with their friend pushed them farther away).
Help students understand the need to practice empathy by using Brené’s comparison to shooting free throws in basketball: “You have to miss a lot of shots before you start consistently making them”. Similarly, empathy is a skill that grows with practice.
Next, tell students that there are seven common empathy misses. Students need to be aware of and understand these empathy misses to know when to circle back and try again. Knowing about these empathy misses also prevents students from making similar mistakes in the future.
For this activity, break the students up into seven small groups. Explain that each group will receive a small card with one of the seven empathy misses. Each group will be given 15 minutes to design a small skit that has the following three components:
- A demonstration of the assigned empathy miss
- A request to circle back
- An accurate representation of empathy
Each group will then be asked to perform their skit and teach the rest of the class about their assigned empathy miss. During this explanation, groups should include the name of the empathy miss, why it’s a miss, and the consequences of the miss. After each presentation, take one minute to clarify any misinterpretations.
Once every group has performed, engage in a brief discussion with the students using any of the following prompts:
- Have you ever been on the receiving end of an empathy miss? If so, how did it feel? Would you feel comfortable pointing out the empathy miss?
- Have you ever been the one to miss or mess up empathy? Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
- What challenges do you anticipate with circling back? How might you be able to overcome those challenges?
- How could you approach a situation where you don’t know how the other person prefers to receive empathy?
- What steps can we take to build a culture of empathy in this classroom?
- Where do you think empathy is missing in our society? Our community? Our school?
Empathy Miss Cards available in download section.
Can I feel empathy if I have never been in the same situation?
Yes, empathy is about connecting to the emotion another person is experiencing, rather than the situation they are in. For example, you may have never experienced racism [sub-in alternative scenarios as necessary] but if Nikhil shares his experiences with you, you would be able to understand the feelings of loneliness and alienation that he is expressing. Maybe you felt this way when you were the first kid to get braces, when you were teased for wearing glasses, or when you felt left out in Christmas celebrations because you practice a different faith. Although these situations are different, you are familiar with the emotions Nikhil is experiencing and you can use this understanding to connect with him. You can also express empathy when you don’t feel overly familiar with another person’s feelings by building connections. One of the leading researchers in this field (Brené Brown) once said that a response can rarely make something better. “What makes something better is connection”. Building connection can be something as simple as putting a hand on your friend's shoulder and saying “I am here for you if you need me”, or even acknowledging your uncertainty by saying “I understand how challenging this situation is for you and I want to support you. Can you help me understand what support looks like for you?” Although it might seem harder to express empathy for someone when you have never been in their situation, it is possible and (good news) it will get easier over time. Sometimes you will miss empathy or mess up, but you will always be able to circle back.
How can I become more empathetic?
I want to start by emphasizing a point that you indirectly made by asking this question: Empathy is a skill that can be learned, and which can be bettered over time. Some people think that empathy is an innate characteristic - that people either are or are not empathetic - but this is not correct. There are several different things that you can do to increase your capacity for empathy. In particular, there are six habits of highly empathetic people that can guide your practice:
- Be curious about the people you meet – empathy challenges you to see the world as others see it and take different perspectives. Being curious about other people’s thoughts, experiences, opinions, and feelings, helps you gain insight into their lives and develop a broader understanding of reality. That being said, make sure that you remain respectful of people’s boundaries and nonjudgmental of the things they share.
- Challenge labels and think about similarities rather than differences – labels (ex. Muslim, disabled, gay, etc.) prevent you from appreciating individual people and connecting to their experiences. These labels make it easy to classify people as “other” and encourage a “them vs. us” thinking style. Build your capacity for empathy by challenging these labels and focusing on your similarities, rather than differences.
- Try another person’s life – conduct your own “mini-experiments” by participating in experiences that are different from your own (ex. attend the service of a faith different from your own, spend a day volunteering in a less privileged community, etc.)
- Listen hard and open up – instead of just hearing another person’s words, try to be present with the feelings that they are experiencing. To increase connection, try making yourself vulnerable by sharing your thoughts and feelings. Also, be sure to take responsibility for your words and actions. If you miss empathy or mess up, then acknowledge the mistake and ask to circle back.
- Connect with the community – empathy is a powerful emotion that fuels social change. For example, the Me Too Movement was launched with the initial goal to build empathy. If you are feeling up to it, think about how you can connect with the community to inspire positive change.
- Empathize with people you don’t want to empathize with – It’s not enough to empathize with your closest friends and family, people who are clearly suffering, or those who are living on the social margins. If you truly want to become more empathetic, you need to learn how to empathize with “enemies”; with people whose beliefs you don’t share or whose actions you don’t agree with.
I don’t feel empathy for other people. Does that make me a bad person?
No, empathy is a choice. You might think that you don’t feel empathy, but that doesn’t mean that you cannot feel empathy – everyone does. However, to choose empathy, you need to have the courage to be vulnerable. Feeling empathy involves recalling, reflecting on, and connecting with uncomfortable feelings. If you are unable to make yourself vulnerable, then you will struggle to connect. One of the reasons why you might have a hard time feeling empathy is that you aren’t prepared to manage the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure that accompanies it. That is okay. Try building your capacity for empathy by addressing some of these underlying challenges with vulnerability. Think back to our discussion about vulnerability and ask yourself the following questions: What vulnerability armour do I wear? What did I identify as a strategy to take off my armor? How can I use those strategies now?