Understanding Empathy

Thank you to everyone who took part in our Empathy Day celebration in June, it was special to see everyone getting cosy, reading and discussing books together. The hot chocolate, made with raw organic cacao, vanilla, a little sweetness and a lot of love, contributed some warm and nourishing magic.

‘What a time to be having an Empathy Day when the tectonic plates of society seem to be moving very fast right now!‘ Miranda McKearney (Empathy Lab founder).

This is an important time in history to boost and cultivate empathy and I have used a recent discussion by some friends of Empathy Lab in the UK to tell you about why we think this is so important.


What is empathy? Why does Empathy Day exist? and Why read books to develop empathy?

The two strategies embodied by Empathy Lab are that empathy is a learnable skill and that books are a potent tool to teach it when used in a systematic way. Together, we hope to build a generation of young people skilled in empathy and inspired to create a better world. Empathy Day is a key program of Empathy Lab that brings together the rich science of empathy and the magical experience of reading.

Empathy is simple in that it is a universal, human quality that allows us to connect and complicated in that there are three parts to it:

  • An Emotional dimension – affect, emotional response
  • A Cognitive dimension – understanding why
  • A Motivational dimension – care, help, action

These come together to produce empathetic behaviour. We show empathy from the beginning of our lives and continue to develop these qualities throughout our lives. Empathy is not a fixed quantity and our environment is instrumental in our learning of it.

Sharing books together builds the emotional and cognitive elements of empathy and inspires us to action. When we read about something our brains react as if we are actually experiencing that something! So, we build our empathy ‘muscles’ and become more empathetic through regular reading. The talk that comes from this shared reading allows us to connect through our experiences, notice and wonder. This takes empathy to a different level.

However, for young people to fully experience this learning we need to create a strong community where we get to know them, value them, their passions and their lives with genuine interest. We create a safe space where young people can connect with us and each other. Those informal moments, where we connect at a human level, are some of the most important of the day.

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author.” Rudine Sims Bishop.

Occasionally, we explore themes in books that are uncomfortable for us but discussing them, in a safe space, can make them more bearable.  We learn about people whose experience is very different from our own but also that within a single community there are a variety of experiences. We aim to gradually dissolve the boundary between ourselves and an ‘other’ and enable our two-dimensional knowledge of other humans to become more three dimensional. Young people need to see themselves in a book and to explore their place in the world.

Each class chose a selection of books to share with their group. This led to many groups initiating a discussion about empathy. Discussion and connection can inspire action. This will continue throughout the year at home and at school.

A story Smoky Night, inspired a conversation in College about the “Black Lives Matter” protests and unrest reverberating around the world, and similar historical incidents and issues there and ere in Australia.  Our focus question was: “How do we experience the lives of others”? Not the “news” which gives us an observer’s perspective, but often it is through the Arts. whether you prefer music, performance, visual arts/sculpture, film or photography, the arts provide us with a human reflection and perspective on the lived experiences of others.

The 3/4’s turned their empathy lens onto homeless people in Perth and how they might be supported.

The 5/6’s celebrated that they all see things differently and that helps them all learn more about the world, rather than having a one size fits all viewpoint. After these discussions, they had a whole class discussion about Empathy – with the following questions to guide them…

  • What is empathy?
  • Why is it important for the world?
  • Why is it important for us personally?
  • How do books help us build our empathy skills?
  • How does sharing music help us build our empathy skills?
  • What is a simple action you can do to show empathy at home and school?

One aim of Empathy day is to create a resolution and my one was ‘to listen fully and not interrupt” The children in the 3/4 class created some beautiful empathy resolutions.

The most effective way to learn empathy is in a natural way and reading, in a curious, open and joyful way, is a powerful tool to achieve this. There are so many programs, resources and lesson plans that attempt to teach empathy but it is not quite this simple. We need to create the conditions to foster empathy and go deeper in our understanding, perspective taking, kindness and compassion. Then, we can truly have hope and optimism for the future.

Empathy is a tool for radical social change.

Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.” Barack Obama


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