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Opportunities for Empathy

Opportunities for Empathy

Cover photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

With the rise of the design cycle (pictured below), empathy has been a trendy word that has quickly risen to increasing prominence. As a Design Technology teacher, I have to admit that I have been a proponent of empathy as well; how else might I truly understand someone’s problem and take their perspective, as Brené Brown tells us?

In that blue section, “Inquiring and analysing”, it’s really about figuring out what others are going through by empathizing.

Furthermore, this word is increasingly on the world’s minds. A Google Trends query shows that empathy has been increasingly searched on Google (pictured below). People want to know, what is empathy? What does it look like? How do I know if I’m empathizing?

Worldwide interest in the term empathy since 2004.
Since that time, the word empathy has been experiencing steady, linear growth on Google Search.

If you had the chance to watch the Brené Brown TED talk that I linked to above, she also makes an interesting comparison between empathy and sympathy. In short, sympathy is a kind of a wall: I notice how you’re feeling, but I’m going to keep you at a distance. Empathy is a bridge: I feel with you, I see from your perspective, I’m here with you, I don’t judge you.

RSA’s animation of Brené Brown’s TED talk on YouTube. In this analogy which animal might represent sympathy, empathy, and the speaker? Where are they, and why might there be a ladder?

Aside from being a good designer and its trendiness, why should we value empathy? Over the last few years as someone who has been practicing it, here is how it has been beneficial:

  • Truth. In this blog post I concluded with the following statement. “Truth moves in an ebb and flow of empathetically taking others’ perspectives and constructing ideas. Together.” The idea being that truth and knowledge are subjective constructs that evolve and change over time. We deepen our knowledge through perspective taking.
  • Building relationships. We are social creatures who have partners, families, colleagues, and students. When we empathize, we create stronger relationships with one another that bring us closer together.

Empathizing Face-to-Face

Photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash

Empathy is hard. Empathy is exhausting. Empathy is like ripping your chest open and exposing your heart. It takes a lot out of you; to protect ourselves from the emotional rollercoaster that empathy can take us on, we often sympathize which is like holding up a shield to protect ourselves.

It’s funny, in the past I thought I was empathizing with people. I thought that I was really listening and helping others with their solutions. But it hit me when I took a Cognitive Coaching Seminar, empathy is in many ways based on self-control by not going to certain places in your mind.

Here are some things to avoid when empathizing:

  • Avoid Silver lining. When we tell people to look on the bright side, it’s a way of invalidating their feelings and trying to make them feel better.
  • Avoid untimely solutions. Sometimes people want a solution, but it’s an art to find the right time to give a solution. If you are following the design cycle, there will be a gap of time between empathy and testing the solution for feedback.
  • Avoid judgement. Judgement can be positive or negative, but saying things like “I’m so happy for you!”, “you had better…”, “when I was in that situation I…”, “you need to step up your game!” all come from a place of evaluation and judgement and can serve to cut a connection with you and the speaker.

Let’s look at what actions one might do when empathizing.

  • Them. Keep the conversation about the other person. You can do this by not mentioning yourself or trying to make a connection to your own life. Giving an example about when something happened to you that is similar to the speaker is actually a selfish act.
  • Solution. Sometimes the best way to help others with a solution is to just listen. That is often what people want and if it’s not, they will give you signals.
  • Body language. As silly as it sounds, imagine you are hugging the speaker. I find that when I imagine this while I’m listening and trying to build empathy, this shows on my face, body, and in my choice of words. Empathy is a form a respect that we give to others; we can do it by showing open body language that nonverbally communicates that we value what the speaker is saying.
  • Listening. Show them that you are listening with your whole body and words. A simple way is to paraphrase, then as a nonjudgemental question that shows the speaker it’s their turn to speak.
  • Feel it. You will know you are empathizing with them because you will feel it with them. I have found that when I go into a coaching session, there are often tears, deep laughs, and a big hug at the end.
  • Time. Give the person your time. Give them your undivided attention.
  • Online/offline. When someone intimates that they want to share something, consider how well you can show empathy online. Our communication is often strongest in person. More on this below.

As you can see, from this above definition, I’m looking at empathy as a form of communication that conveys respect and feeling with people. One of the most important things I can’t reiterate enough is that it is a special form of listening.

Empathizing Online

When communicating online, there are many pitfalls. The most dangerous thing is the culture of the Internet, in my opinion. The Internet is a place full of sarcasm. Communication is also largely text-based which can make it hard to read someone intonation and to show them that we are displaying all of those communication techniques in the face-to-face section above. If I were to interpret some of those techniques, I might say:

  • Careful choice of words. Because the Internet can be a place without “tone”, we need to choose our words and punctuation carefully. Adding emojis can really help people read things the way you intend them and really shift the tone they “hear” in their heads.
  • Paraphrase. Show them that you heard or read them by taking their perspective and showing that you understand rather than waiting to respond.
  • Them. As I mentioned above, you can also keep the conversation about them as you type or respond.
  • Online/offline. I’m just going to go ahead and repeat this one because I think it’s so important. If you can talk to a person with video, your ability to give them your attention and show empathy will be greatly increased. And in the most ideal situation, visit them face-to-face. This could be challenging for kids who have online communities and who never meet their collaborators in person.
  • Avoid Judgement. As I mentioned above, empathy contains no silver-lining, no judgement, it’s really about listening.


Photo by João Silveira on Unsplash
It’s a small thing. You know, to listen to one another and to suspend our judgement. But it really goes a long way to build bridges.

Unfortunately, you can’t really make someone else empathetic, nor can you really help others to be empathetic. However, You can provide others (e.g. students, children, partners, etc.) with opportunities to empathize and an environment to be safe to open up and share.

An empathetic environment would be one in which:

  • It’s safe to be open and share.
  • Communication, reflection, and sharing is practiced regularly.
  • All perspectives matter. People are thanked for their contributions and ideas, not necessarily rewarded for the “right” answer.

Opportunities to be reflective could come from activities similar to Empatico in which global groups of students can share how they do things. For example, how do you play?  What’s the weather like where you are in the world? Empatico’s website is full of wonderful ideas about how we might empathize with one another online which can be challenging without having a close relationship. How can online sharing go deeper than sympathy?

Another opportunity that I often talk to teachers about is to bring in an idea of the design cycle (pictured at top) into their units. I do this with the following questions:

  • How does what you are learning connect to the world or communities?
  • Do people in the world face a problem that this learning objective might help solve? Or how could we use this learning in our lives outside of school?
  • What is the global context of this unit?
  • How could feedback from stakeholders guide the project?

When we really hear someone, we can really help them. I don’t mean in the design cycle sense, although that is perfectly fine. I mean that we can make people feel a certain sense of catharsis, getting it off their chest, to feel like they aren’t alone, or to have a partner in their celebration.

By fostering bridge-building, we also help to create opportunities for interdependence, co-construction of knowledge, and the opportunity for others to return the favor of being a listener when we need it. If we want to build empathy online, I recommend that we first build empathy offline.


  • Ryan Persaud -

    Alex, this post this week would really pair well with what I wrote. I too wrote on empathy and from the approach of what schools can do to teach it. I like your “how to guide” if I might call it, as to move people forward with how they approach empathy. I enjoyed the quick Brene Brown video, and she very succinctly is able to differentiate between sympathy and empathy. Many people think they are one in the same, but they are vastly different, and she does a nice job of stating this. I also like how you approached “online” empathy. I think this is really important because, as we know, our students spend a great deal of time in that space, and being able to empathize online can be a challenge, especially considering the importance of reading body language. It is important for our students to realize that they need to practice this skill with their friends, and if they are texting a friend, and trying to be authentically empathetic, this can be a challenge. I think this skill would be a great topic for advisory or community circle time with classes.

  • […] One of my favorite posts during this course has been on Empathy. In rereading this post, I have to say that I still agree with its ideas and approaches. I wouldn’t say that I have learned any new approaches to being any more empathetic. But I bring up this post again because of one of the comments I received. Ryan Persaud brought the idea of “authentically empathizing” online. In rereading this comment, I had a bit of a lightbulb go off. To connect with one another, we have to be willing to take a risk and make ourselves vulnerable. This is nothing new, but I can’t help but wonder: if we want to make learning authentic, does that too involve risk taking? […]

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