Can Empathy Be Taught?
Updated: Apr 27
What is empathy? Empathy is the ability to understand and share feelings with another person. There are three types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. These three types of empathy manifest in different ways when you are at home, at school, or at work. Let’s begin by explaining what each of them is.
According to Daniel Goleman, a well-known psychologist and science journalist who reports about the brain and behavioral sciences, cognitive empathy means “simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking; sometimes called perspective-taking”. This type of empathy helps with motivating other people, and it’s ideal for virtual meetings because you can see through a screen how other people are feeling without them showing you. If you lack this kind of empathy, you may feel disconnected from people or you ignore deep emotions. This type of empathy comes in handy in certain situations where you need to get inside other people's heads or interact with thoughtfulness and understanding.
According to Goleman, emotional empathy is “when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious”, meaning that you get along with someone based on their emotions. We know that animals and humans have certain neurons that allow them to relate to a fellow human or animal when they see them acting in a certain way; they relate to their actions with their own brain and body. One benefit of this kind of empathy is that you can get closer to someone in an interpersonal relationship and form a strong bond with him or her, but having too much of it can sometimes be overwhelming. This doesn’t mean that you know exactly what the other person is feeling in every situation, but you at least try to understand them.
The last type of empathy is compassionate empathy. This is when we not only understand the person’s feelings but when we are able to do something to help them. When we use this type of empathy we try to consider, why is she/he feeling this way? What can I do to help her? What can I do to provide comfort to that person? It goes beyond feelings and allows us to take action.
When we are four or five years old we start building the ability to see things from another perspective. Studies show that empathy can be taught or encouraged from such a young age. In our school, we are lucky to have a socio-emotional learning program taught through our Advisory groups once a week. In these, we discuss scenarios that teach us to identify what empathy is and show us how empathy can be practiced. But teaching empathy begins with showing empathy; if you feel secure and cared for, you are more likely to show empathy towards others.
I think all schools should try to help us feel and understand the emotions of others because it is important for us as human beings to connect with the people around us in order to fulfill our role in society and belong to it fully. Sometimes, this skill is not taught at home and our parents, who should be our first teachers, were not taught this themselves. Therefore, the school has a great responsibility and can achieve this in multiple ways, not only through the counseling department.
Image from: The ASH Leader