Discussion  - 
Is empathy teachable?  If so, how?
David Tumbarello's profile photoDavid Hain's profile photoMark Sturgell's profile photoTerri Klass's profile photo
The act of showing empathy is teachable. The signs to look for in others are teachable. The pace to feel others needs is teachable.  The only thing that is not teachable is "desire" to do it.  I can inspire it yet in the end others must want to do it.  Great quetsion +Karin Hurt 
I have been trained as a drama therapist and there is nothing like  acting, specifically enacting a real life drama and then switching roles with the antagonist , to teach empathy.
Great concept, +Blair Glaser .  I think about your question, +Karin Hurt , a lot - or at least I used to.  I like that +Kate Nasser mentions desire.   For me, it is like this -- to be asking the question, Karin, you probably have a scenario in mind.  I don't know the scenario, but I can imagine two opposing cases.  In one case, we'll call it the Open Learning case, the audience seeks to learn empathy or develop a greater empathetic presence with others.  In the other case, called Directional Instruction, an instructor is attempting to teach empathy to a less-than-fully invested individual.  One direction.

Now let's take the first case.  An interested individual seeks to learn empathy.  That is great.  That person can observe, practice, request feedback, contemplate, take risks, and fail in the attempt to acquire an empathetic presence.  As a mentor in this situation, my role is to provide a nurturing environment, opportunities, reflection, and room for growth.  Come to think of it, this is not instruction.  This is mentoring.

In this first case, the Open Learning scenario, I suppose the invested individual, the mentee, would benefit from the opportunities and desire, but that person would also benefit from some formal instruction.  So two teaspoons real-life practice & work and two teaspoons classroom instruction.  

In my opinion, this combined approach is the best way to develop empathy.

In the second case, if you are teaching someone who is less-than-fully invested, it is like teaching someone to Rollerblade.  Here are the tools, good luck.

Finally, in a moment of transparency, I offer a few words about how I learned empathy.  When I was in my early twenties, I read everything I could written by Carl Rogers.  I read Rogers first thing when I arrived at the university library.  I was a student of the process.  Then I one day in the dorms I realized when I was listening to a friend share a story, there was no longer two of us, but one.  My words, my surprise, my response were listening behaviors not meant to engineer a response but to be present with.  I was present with.  While this was kinda spiritual, I realized empathy is partially loss of self, but not entirely.  It is "getting it" without the intellectual firing of neurons that say "I get it!"  This friend and I shared a moment, and then a prayer.  I stepped back into my skin.

Rogers says empathy is seeing the world of someone else as if it were your own "without losing the as if" quality.  Intellectually, I get it - that he is writing as a therapist.  For me, I can accept a few more degrees of losing oneself and having a healthy moment when there are "no longer two of us, but one."
It can be taught, carefully, lest the lesson learned is sympathy instead.

Empathy is like saying "I'm sorry for what you're going through", which is not the same as sympathy, when you take on another's emotional state as your own. Empathy can contribute to healthy work (and other mature) relationships. Sympathy tends to create drama and what author Cy Wakeman calls "Emotional Expensiveness."
Love the question, +Karin Hurt and honestly believe we can teach empathy. In my training programs I often ask the participants to step inside another person's shoes and try to  see and feel things from their perspective. When we take the time to visualize why a person feels a certain way, we begin the process of understanding another's feelings- empathy. Thanks for  starting this dialogue! 
Add a comment...