The Power of Empathy by Miss Walker

Posted on: 26/02/2021

As we come to the end of National Empathy Week, I thought it would be timely to reflect on the power of empathy and how practising empathy will be so important in supporting our children and each other as we navigate our way through and beyond the pandemic.

Empathy is at the root of compassion, respect, kindness, friendship, consideration and acceptance. It’s different from having sympathy for someone, which means to look at their suffering from the outside and feel sorry or sad for them. Empathy is feeling someone else’s pain or seeing through their eyes. From infancy, human brains are hard-wired for relationships and connection. We crave interactions and authentic connections that give us a sense of belonging. The science of empathy is at the core of emotional intelligence and relationship mastery and it lies within the limbic brain (emotional brain) and prefrontal cortex (rational mind).

By recognising feelings, thinking how and why someone is feeling this way and acting to be there for someone, we can have a huge impact for those who might be finding life challenging at this time. If we can develop our own empathy practice, it will help us connect with people we love and care about—and even handle those challenging situations or difficult people in our lives more gracefully.  Children who experience and receive empathy will feel connected, safer and more secure, easing the pain of life's hardships and struggles for them and they will be far more likely to be empathetic themselves.  Therefore it is vitally important that we develop our own empathetic practice so that we can model what empathy looks and feels like to our children and support them as they navigate the challenges and feelings they may be encountering.

In assembly this week I shared with the children how stories can be ‘empathy engines’, helping them to see the world through the eyes of others and to walk in their shoes for a time. Connecting to other perspectives can bring greater empathetic understanding. I challenged the children to train their ‘empathy superpower’ by putting on imaginary empathy glasses when they read to really think about how characters might be feeling and why. Reading stories together with your children will help them to build this understanding, equipping them to recognise feelings in themselves and others. 

I often see our pupils practising giving and receiving empathy in the playground, whether that be supporting an upset peer on the friendship bench  or comforting a friend who has fallen over. They often show empathy too after a sports match when the result has not gone their way and in lessons when someone shares something that has made them sad. We too need to take time to practise developing our empathy superpowers if we are to help support our children and each other.  How often as parents, partners or colleagues have we found ourselves responding to those around us by trying to convince them that their situation isn't so bad, telling them you have bigger problems of your own, telling them to ‘buck up’, trying to fix their problem, changing the subject or just not knowing what to say. This is not showing empathy: these responses won’t make someone feel heard or listened to and may result in emotional difficulties remaining unresolved.  

So, where to begin? Here are some tips for developing your own empathy practice:

Actively listen. Making eye contact and ensuring distractions such as mobile phones, laptops and TVs don’t prevent you from being present and the other person feeling unseen and unheard by you. 

Empty your mind when listening to another person. Avoid letting your mind wander to what is for dinner or responding to a work email. 

Don’t be a solution giver, solving someone's problem may seem helpful, but it is not empathetic. Simply accept and understand the feelings the person is experiencing without judging them. 

Use supportive phrases such ‘That must have been really hard for you’, ‘You must be feeling very sad right now’, ‘I know what it’s like to feel this way’, ‘My goodness that must have been difficult’,  ‘Boy that sounds tough’ or simply ‘I understand’.  Empathetic phrases like these will help show that you recognise and understand their feelings and will help them to feel understood and supported. 

Empathy for others won’t necessarily lead them to change their behaviour or fix their problem, but it does help you to be present for them and can help both parties, the giver and receiver, better navigate difficult emotions. You will start to recognise signs your empathy is having an impact with others as you start to feel more in sync with one another and an increased connection unfolds, emotions dissipate or recede, your interactions lead to a deeper closeness or understanding of each other, a real and honest conversation develops and people feel more capable because they know they're not alone. Cultivating empathy for others has certainly helped me manage challenges and support those I love and care for better. 

I have no doubt we have all faced difficult times this past year, it has taken a huge mental and emotional toll on us all, but I know, instinctively, that we all thrive when we are well in every sense. So I encourage us all to take the time to really listen to each other, take a moment to think about what it would be like to be in another person's shoes and show you appreciate and understand the emotions they feel.  By adopting more empathetic approaches in our daily lives, I believe we have the best chance of coming through these most challenging times together and of keeping the genuine well-being and happiness of every member of our school community at our foundation, upon which everything else will be built in the future.  

I’ll leave you with this link to a great video from Professor Brene Brown which amusingly explains the difference between sympathy and empathy.  

Enjoy the weekend everyone and may we all keep opening our hearts to let empathy in. 

Miss Walker