Empathy – We Must Learn to Speak This Language of Connection

By: Ana Sokolovic

The basis of our understanding of each other is in our capacity and willingness to learn and show empathy.

Empathy is the language that allows us to communicate with a depth that makes the connection possible.

The nature of that connection is not in the simple transaction of behaviors, but in the participation that we are able and desire to take in other people’s experiences. Empathy allows us to understand the logic behind someone’s choices no matter how different they are from our own.

What if we approached teaching empathy as teaching a new language?

Throughout my experience in working with individuals, from children, to adolescents, to adults, I’ve come to appreciate this guiding question.

Language is so much more than the sum of the words that fall under its vocabulary. It is a tool of communication that extends to how the words are used, the contexts in which we find ourselves using those words, the style we choose when speaking, the meaning it conveys, the effects it produces…if we look at empathy through the lens of language learning, then we can gain new ideas on ways to approach it.

So, let’s use the wisdom of language learning in the context of developing empathy!

The right teacher can make a difference

The way of teaching matters. In the words of Teddy Roosevelt, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Your own behavior speaks louder than your words. 

In the context of teacher-student relationship, I’ve often heard that inviting empathy into the relationship meant becoming permissive and giving in to the requests of students. I’ve also seen cases in which empathy was the tool used by the teachers to better connect with students and improve the success of their teaching. 

Ways to use this wisdom:

  • Show that you care what your students think. Provide them with the opportunities to give you feedback and try to incorporate their ideas into your teaching. 
  • Do something nice for your students when they don’t expect it. Show appreciation for their efforts. Write a short letter of encouragement for each of them. Organize a classroom event you feel they may enjoy.
  • Let them know that you’re willing to listen and help out if they ever wish to talk to you. 

You will learn only as much as you are willing to listen

To be able to pick up on the new words, phrases, the nature of the context in which certain expressions are used, a student needs to learn how to listen. The same goes for empathy.

Active listening is a skill that takes practice. Listening is not only about being quiet and focused on hearing. It’s about learning to put your own judgement on hold to hear the meaning of what a person is sharing. Sometimes, it’s not the words that need to be listened to, but the absence of them.

Ways to use this wisdom:

  • Make “Active Listener” a Badge students can earn in your class. There are different levels of active listening skills, and you can make this badge indicate which skill level a student has demonstrated. 
  • Facilitate exercises that involve active listening. Such exercises could be about sharing individual experiences regarding a topic the class finds relevant. 
  • In a discussion, create a list of examples of how you listen actively that you can refer to during your classes.
    • You do not interrupt others while they’re speaking or try to forcefully change a topic of discussion.
    • You put your phone down when somebody’s talking to you.
    • You lean forward to the person who’s sharing.
    • You may say, “Please tell me more about it.”

There’s always more than just one way to say something

There are many ways of expressing the same thought. The way it’s expressed in the mind of a listener can carry a different meaning.

For example, you may say: “What you are saying isn’t making sense to me.” 

But, you can also say, “I am sorry, can you elaborate on it a bit more? I am afraid I do not understand.”

In showing empathy, the way you use your words matter. 

Ways you can use this wisdom:

  • Practice using your words empathically. Start from a question: “What’s that all about?” or a statement, “You and I are so different.” Engage your class in a discussion on how these questions and statements can be rephrased to come across as someone who is willing to listen and understand.
  • Practice taking responsibility for your own words. Instead of phrasing interpretations as objective truths, practice taking the ownership of them verbally. 
    • “From my perspective, it seems as if this person was trying to…”
    • “I believe their actions were ….”
    • “I felt as if they were trying to provoke anger…”

Your motivation for learning, plays an important role

Motivation is beyond important in learning. So, what is it that motivates you to show empathy? It’s not enough to assume that people will just care. Sometimes, they need to be shown the importance of caring.

Ways you can use this wisdom:

  • Discuss the importance of empathy with your students. They may not recognize empathy under that name. You may then ask them about the importance of kindness, understanding, and willingness to help others. 
  • Help them reflect on their experiences with empathy.
  • Discuss the behaviors that are opposed to empathy. What kinds of consequences do they produce?

Go to places where the language is spoken

When you’re surrounded by the language, you’re encouraged to think in it. The same goes for empathy. When you’re surrounded by people who promote empathic behavior, it becomes the norm that you, too, feel encouraged to act according to it. It’s particularly important to develop such empathic behavior in children

Ways to use this wisdom:

  • Bring in people who promote emphatic behaviors to talk and engage with your students.
  • Use the resources from the Random Acts of Kindness website on how to make kindness the norm in your classroom.

To encourage students to become more engaged, you can create a challenge around acts of kindness. You can set classroom goals for acts of kindness and work together to reach these goals. The “results” can be displayed on the classroom wall so that everyone can keep track of how they’re doing together.

Be patient with yourself

To have the capacity to learn about others, an individual must take care of their own capacities. This is why it’s important to teach students about self-compassion. The kindness you show to yourself is as important as the kindness you show others.

Ways to use this wisdom:

  • Encourage your students to do something kind for themselves every week.
  • Discuss ways in which you can prevent burn-out in school and life.
  • Help your students better understand the signs of stress and anxiety, and brainstorm together on ways to cope with the difficulties and challenges they’re facing.

Empathy is the language of connection

It’s the kind of language that goes beyond borders, individual differences, turbulent histories, and sets us off to a better future. This is why we must all learn how to speak empathy.