Valentine’s Day 2021: Let’s Talk About Empathy

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Happy Valentine’s Day from Worldwide Speech! This Valentine’s Day we are talking about empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand what other people feel, see things from their perspective, and imagine yourself in their shoes.

Previously…

Our last two blogs, Conversational Competency and How To Raise Emotionally Intelligent Children, highlighted empathy as the key component to raising emotionally intelligent children and having conversational competence.

But what makes empathy different than sympathy?

In this video, Brené Brown explains that empathy fuels a connection, whereas sympathy drives disconnection.

4 qualities of empathy:

  1. Perspective-taking
  2. Staying out of judgment
  3. Recognizing emotion with other people
  4. Communicating that emotion

Empathy is feeling with people.

Sympathy sounds like, “Oh, it’s bad… want a sandwich?” or beginning a sentence with “at least you…” People who demonstrate sympathy try to point out the silver lining behind your pain. They are trying to make things better or fix it for you rather than saying, “I don’t know what to say, I’m just so glad you told me.” Responses don’t always make things better. What can, is connection.

To better understand this concept, we’ll discuss the article, What Is Empathy by Kendra Cherry.

This article mentions 3 types of empathy:

What is empathy?
  1. Affective Empathy: The ability to respond to other people’s emotions appropriately. This may lead to someone feeling concerned for another’s well-being.
  2. Somatic Empathy: The ability to feel what another person is feeling. This can be a sort of physical reaction, shout ut to all my sympathetic criers! You’re actually empathic criers!
  3. Cognitive Empathy: The ability to understand someone’s mental state and what they might be thinking in response to a situation. This is where “theory of mind” comes in A.K.A thinking about what other people are thinking.
What is the opposite of empathy?

In order to understand what empathy is, we need to understand exactly what it isn’t. Oddly enough, the opposite of empathy is not hatred/carelessness, it’s fear. Fear is the brain’s way of keeping us safe. It is regulated in the amygdala which is responsible for the autonomic reactions we have in response to things in our environment, especially things that might harm us. However, an overactive amygdala can shut down or limit access to empathy because of the negative emotional “noise” created by the amygdala.

Thus, empathy doesn’t come easily for us all. For many individuals, seeing another person in pain and responding with compassion is a given. But some individuals have had experiences that have affected their social/emotional development or experiences that led to an overactive amygdala. Others have conditions that make perspective-taking very difficult. As so, both nature and nurture influence the development of empathy.

So why should we be more empathic?

Taking a quick look at any news source would prove several instances of unkind, selfish, and fear-based acts. I think we can all agree we could use a smidge more empathy given the worldwide trauma that unfolded last year and continues today.

Empathy could help us build social connections with others. By thinking about what other people might be thinking or feeling, we are better able to respond appropriately in social situations. Many relationships have crumbled due to the inability to acknowledge someone else’s perspective is their truth as well as the inability to regulate our own emotions. Rather than having a conversation to better understand other’s perspectives, we are arguing to get our point across without thinking of the other’s well-being and letting our own negative emotions take the reigns.

Interestingly, research has found that empathy is directly related to people’s willingness to follow COVID-19 safety recommendations. This is because empathy allows us to connect with one another while increasing mental health literacy. It also helps to reduce violent and fear-based interactions and even relates to reduced levels of anxiety and stress. And boy, don’t we all need some of that! When we have empathy, we are no longer making decisions for ourselves, but for the greater good.

How can we help children build empathy?

If empathy is important for adults, it’s important for children tenfold (See: Parents: It’s On You To Teach Your Kids Empathy ). The next generation has the opportunity to turn things around, leading to a healthier society overall.

Fostering empathy can begin early on when kids are toddlers beginning to walk and talk. But the optimal age to truly begin diving into the topic is 5-7 years old. During these years, children become more aware of their surroundings and start taking note of differences and similarities. Around this time, their language development, social-emotional development, and cognitive development are constantly expanding.

To foster empathy in children, the article above gives the following suggestions to parents:
  • Model empathy by showing it toward your child and to others outside of the home. Validate your child’s feelings and the feelings of others.
  • Make discussions about your child’s feelings and the feelings of others a daily conversation topic. This can include discussions about characters in their favorite TV or books, or even during pretend play.
  • Use “I statements.” Start sentences with “I feel… because…” and if needed “I’d like (propose solution how to improve situation or emotion).
  • Teach your children the real use of “I’m sorry.” We all teach our kids to say sorry until it’s an automatic response but they don’t fully understand it. When teaching apologies, parents should teach their children to say “I’m sorry” to explain exactly why they are sorry and to take ownership of what was wrong with their words/actions, and to express understanding of how that impacted others.
  • Teach children to recognize nonverbal language. While asking someone how they feel is great, when we teach children to recognize body language and social cues, the empathy roots dig much deeper.
  • Remember that teaching empathy is not a one-and-done deal. It is consistent cultivation over time and taught primarily through natural life experiences.

Early on, my parents fostered empathy by teaching us to identify whether our reaction to someone was love-based or fear-based. Love-based meant it was coming from a place where both sides were considered whereas fear-based meant we were acting based on reactive emotions. And to this day I still believe love always wins.

Additional Resources