Part of growing up is developing empathy, the ability to understand the feelings of others. It starts in kindergarten when we learn to share the crayons. As we get older, we learn to include others on the playground to avoid hurt feelings and begin to relate to those who are different than we are.
That natural part of human development is facing some unique challenges as many of our social interactions, whether at home or in school, are happening with a screen rather than face to face. Helen Riess, director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, says that while there are many benefits to technology, we must not forget what makes us human: social and emotional awareness and, most important, empathy.
“People are becoming more used to looking at screens with texts than they are at reading people’s emotions on their faces,” says Riess, who is also an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “That’s such a rich area of emotional information and connection.”
Riess’ work and her company, Empathetics, has focused on the development of empathy training to help medical professionals become more sensitive to nonverbal communications with their patients. With only three hours of training in verbal and nonverbal perceptions and responses to others, there were significant improvements.
“Empathy is a brain-based capacity,” she says. “It’s an ability to perceive the thoughts and feelings of others and the ability to feel or understand the context of a person's situation. We teach how to respond in a respectful and caring manner after really listening to what the person is saying and showing curiosity to learn more about their circumstances.”
This is good news for teachers because it means that, while empathy is a complex neurological response, it can be learned. Based on Riess’ work with medical professionals, here are tips for teachers seeking to help students develop the basics of social and emotional intelligence.
Encourage eye contact.
There's a mind-body connection associated with empathy. It helps us feel valued when the person we are talking to makes eye contact with us. Remind students to make eye contact with each other when communicating.
Make a face.
Younger students are sometimes shown pictures of faces and asked to read what emotion is being expressed. Ask students to mirror the emotion by making facing that express that particular feeling.
Ask students to notice if their friend is slumped in their chair or looking downward? Or are they sitting upright and looking chipper? These indications can help students see beyond the words the person is saying.
Name that emotion.
It may seem obvious, but even the act of naming the emotion you are seeing can help you more fully understand it. Is that person happy, irritated or confused?
Recognize tone of voice.
Much like the expression on our faces, tone of voice can betray much more about our feelings than we intend. Think of the number of times your exasperated tone of voice has unintentionally betrayed your irritation with your spouse or child. The good news is that tone of voice can be practiced. Demonstrate what it sounds like when you are being disingenuous or patronizing. Now have students practice what it sounds like when they are being genuine and complimentary. There are subtle differences in tone that can help us understand one another.
Listen for understanding.
Most people listen with the intention of responding, but encourage your students to listen with the intention of understanding. Paying attention to the subtle clues of facial expression, noticing a person’s posture and listening to the tone of voice will help your students truly hear what the person is trying to express.
Respond with empathy.
An empathetic response shows that you care about the other person. This is a skill that is difficult for adults, as well. Avoid giving advice, one-upping, analyzing or correcting the person. Sometimes the only response needed is just to let the speaker know they have been heard.
While many of these trademarks of empathy have become second nature to us as adults, children are still learning. Riess points out that if there is respect for each other in the classroom and everyone’s feelings matter, there will be less bullying. Besides bullying prevention, there are many benefits to helping students become more empathetic, including building a positive classroom culture and preparing students to become leaders.
“All of us are benefitting from technology. It’s only when it takes the place of any kind of more intimate exchange that we start losing a lot of information,” Riess says. “Having people open up their self-awareness to the awareness of other people’s emotion is the key to having better communication and better learning.”
Jennifer Snelling is a freelance writer who lives in Eugene, Oregon.
This is an updated version of a post that originally published on April 14, 2017.