Compassionate Empathy: The Greater Good and Social Justice

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I think we should talk more about our empathy… the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town.

When you think like this—when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers—it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.

Barack Obama, referring to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in a commencement speech at Xavier University, New Orleans, 2006

Compassionate empathy is considered the most powerful form of empathy. It combines the affective state—compassion—that signifies sympathy for the plight of others (Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas, 2010), and the emotional state—empathy—that focuses on feeling the experiences and emotions of others (Batson, 2014). Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes and looking at the world through the eyes of someone different than ourselves creates a compassionate empathy that inspires people to want to take action, and forms the foundation of social justice and the pursuit of the greater good for everyone.

The Benefits of Fostering Compassionate Empathy in Children

As opposed to cognitive empathy, which is an intellectual understanding of the perceived pain of another, compassionate empathy is a feeling that inspires action (Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas, 2010). Compassionate empathy moves us past simply understanding the emotional experiences of others and compels us to take substantive action to create change. Many grassroots movements have their foundations in an understanding that not only are people suffering, but something must be done about it. Movements such as those for social and racial justice or human and animal rights have been inspired by an imperative to operationalize compassion into action (Singer & Klimecki, 2014).

In the classroom, fostering compassionate empathy in students can have many benefits (Casale, Thomas, & Simmons, 2018). For example:

Compassionate empathy in the classroom creates an environment of trust, respect, and equity. Studies have shown that an empathetic learning environment removes cognitive barriers to learning and can even increase a student’s desire to learn. Classrooms that employ empathetic communication encourage the social and emotional development of children while teaching them to be kind to themselves and others as they learn, make mistakes, and grow (Laird, 2015).

Children who have compassionate empathy become engaged, empowered, and outwardly focused citizens. One of the broader goals of education is to create an informed society that has the capacity to understand and react to ethical and moral ambiguity. For this reason, compassionate empathy is an essential component in the emotional toolbox of ethical, action-oriented, and engaged citizens (Misco, 2014).

Turning Empathy Into Action in the Classroom

The transition from adolescence to adulthood marks an emerging desire for civic engagement (Flanagan & Levine, 2010). For this reason, teachers and schools play an important role in teaching students how to navigate the world and make it a better place. Here are two strategies that will help guide students from empathy to action.

Introduce students to the value of lived experiences. Lived experiences are a powerful tool for building empathy. Teachers can introduce these elements by presenting the stories of figures in history who took action to promote social justice and pursued the greater good. These stories will help students develop the empathetic imagination to see the world through the eyes of another, and inspire a deeper empathy that may initiate action (Yilmaz, 2007).

Promote a culture of open communication and respectful dialogue. Having empathy for the lived experiences of others can create a desire to create change. Age-appropriate classroom discussions about real-world conflicts, complex social issues, and ambiguous ethical questions offer students an opportunity to practice essential critical thinking and reasoning skills (Campbell, 2008).

Allowing a diversity of opinions in classroom discussions gives students opportunities to learn from each other and grow (Torney- Purta, 2002). Teachers should facilitate these discussions with the goal of guiding students from defining problems to caring enough to fix them.

Compassionate Empathy Inspires Action

Compassionate empathy is a deep, outward-focused empathy that will help students to better understand and care for those around them. This prosocial emotional state enriches our relationships with those around us and makes us care enough about the suffering of others to proactively address it (Thompson & Gullone, 2003).

Instilling these values in children through our words and actions will prepare them to be ethically minded adults who are sensitive to the feelings of others. These children will be empowered to stand up for their rights and the rights of others— to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and see the world through another person’s eyes—and to work to create a more just society.