What Is Empathy?

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Leslie Jamison writes that empathy is a kind of travel: entering another person’s experience “as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query . . .” (2014). Empathy requires us to be a respectful guest who is there to observe, reflect, and seek to understand another person’s experience. To be able to develop the ability to feel another’s experience, we must extend ourselves—to travel, as Jamison says—across our borders and into someone else’s experiences, allowing us to “see” into someone else’s feelings, thoughts, and ideas to find where they intersect with our own. Empathy is an essential aspect of education and one of Fly Five’s social-emotional learning competencies, defined as “the ability to recognize, appreciate, and understand another’s state of mind or emotions, to be receptive to new ideas and perspectives, and to see, appreciate, and value differences and diversity in others” (Turner et al., 2019).

Empathy is a powerful skillset that can make people better colleagues, family members, and friends (Miller, 2019) and provide individuals with a more positive sense of self (Hasio, 2015). Empathy can be deployed to combat bullying, as it helps us understand differences and respect alternative worldviews (Ehrlich & Ornstein, 2010; Miller, 2019) and builds an awareness of our actions and their subsequent reactions. Empathy has also become the focus of organizations. Companies such as Forbes have urged the adoption of “empathy and perspective-taking principles,” and the Harvard Business Review named empathy as one of the essential traits for excellence as both a leader and a performer (Goleman, 2014, as cited in Borba, 2018).

Types of Empathy

As a psychological process that can be measured as both a trait and a state of mind, empathy is more complex than simply feeling what others feel. There are three different types of empathy, all of which are interrelated yet distinct (Powell & Roberts, 2017):

Cognitive empathy refers to recognizing how a person may feel and think in an emotional situation. Cognitive empathy has been shown to predict positive social outcomes, such as helping behavior, injustice sensitivity, and compassion for others.

Emotional empathy describes what we typically think of when we think of empathy: feeling what another person is feeling. Emotional empathy has been shown to explain the link between mimicry and prosocial behavior, and facilitates social bonding. It may allow someone to feel the consequences of their actions, thus helping them to better understand when and how they’ve affected someone. Emotional empathy has also been linked to altruistic motivations, where one helps someone else primarily to benefit the person being helped rather than for personal gain (Edele, Dziobek, & Keller, 2012).

Compassionate empathy encompasses feelings of sympathy, concern, or compassion for another. It is typically associated with positive actions, such as charitable behavior and a desire to help the other person deal with their situation and emotions. Taken together, these three types of empathy are flexible and dynamic. They are affected by and can affect our daily lives; the type and level of empathy present will change, depending on the situation. However, we can take steps to build empathy as we would any skill. Through modeling, learning, and practice, educators can increase the likelihood that students will respond to situations with compassion, kindness, and, of course, empathy.

Using the Stages of Skill Development to Develop Empathy

To help students build empathy and demonstrate it consistently, it is important to consider how skills develop via four stages:

  • Stage One—Ignorance Unconscious inability: when students are unaware of a skill, and unaware that they lack it.
  • Stage Two—Recognition Conscious inability: when students are conscious of the skill but still unable to execute it.
  • Stage Three—Awareness Conscious ability: when students are able to perform the skill but with conscious effort.
  • Stage Four—Learned Unconscious ability: when students can perform the skill without thinking about it.
4 Stages of Learning

To begin the learning cycle for empathy specifically, you can first explain and define what empathy is using examples from the classroom or from books and curriculum materials, and highlighting moments where a student or character demonstrates empathy. Next, have students reflect on moments when they’ve shown someone empathy so they begin to see that it is something they are likely already practicing in their lives. As students’ understanding of empathy deepens, integrate perspective-taking and empathy-building activities into the classroom so that reacting with empathy becomes second nature.

Fostering Empathy

While students practice, adults can focus on building skills in each of the four themes used to explicitly develop students’ empathy:

  1. Respects differing cultural norms. Help students understand their own culture and those of others by drawing comparisons and exposing students to diverse stories. Studies show that exposing children to diverse characters from other cultures can help to combat negative stereotypes and expand students’ perspective-taking abilities. This can be done with fiction, nonfiction, and poetry (Zuckerbrod, 2018).
  2. Recognizes and manages one’s own emotions and the emotions of others. Building students’ emotional literacy is a crucial aspect of developing empathy. For younger students, consider having them identify how they feel on a given day with a chart depicting common emotions. For older students, have them practice checking in with a partner and having open discussions about how they are feeling (Borba, 2018).
  3. Respects and values diversity in others. Diversity can come in many forms, and it’s important that students learn to respect not only cultural diversity but also gender, race, ethnicity, age, ability, and religion, among others. In addition to exposing children to diverse stories through literature, embed perspective-taking moments into the classroom routine. For example, ask questions such as “How would you feel in that situation?” or have students think through a conflict from the opposite perspective (Borba, 2018). When students see another perspective, they will be better equipped to embrace diversity and understand where another person is coming from.
  4. Aware of the impact one’s actions have on others. Helping students self-regulate their emotions will build empathy and provide the skills to remain in control, think clearly, and respond to situations appropriately (Borba, 2018). Mindfulness can help students self-regulate and increase empathy, keeping them in the moment and not judging. This will allow students to be more aware of the mental states of others and also separate themselves from overwhelming thoughts or feelings so that they can respond constructively rather than reactively (Ridderinkhof, 2017).

When students cross the border to another person’s experiences and views and learn to empathize, they are better able to collaborate across differences. Fostering empathy is an ongoing process that requires adult modeling, perspective-taking activities woven into lessons, and clear, explicit boundaries for acceptable behavior. Cultivating empathy affords both teachers and students the ability to acknowledge and validate differences and find understanding, building a foundation for a more kind and just society that begins in our classrooms.