Growing Empathy

Contributed by Jody McVittie, MD

Empathy is a word that gets used a lot these days. What IS it really? I like Brené Brown’s (of TED talk fame) definition: “the skill or ability to tap into our own experiences in order to connect with an experience someone is relating to us.” Empathy is what helps us sense that we are not alone in the world. It connects us to others and, as Brené Brown reminds us, it is the “antidote” to shame.

The skill of empathy requires that we can, without judgment, see the world as another person sees it and that we can “get” another person’s feelings and communicate to the person that we understood.

Since our children learn best by observing and experiencing us, one of the most powerful ways to teach empathy is to practice it ourselves. By growing our own empathy, we can grow theirs.

Challenge for the week:
Seeing the world through their eyes – without judgment. Without doing anything differently become a scientist and notice. What are your judgments and then of what might be going on for the other person? And then what happens – if all we do is see things differently? What if we extend this practice to ourselves? If we relax a bit on our own self judgment?

What happens
Your child does not have his shoes on when it is time to leave in the morning.

Possible judgments
He is dawdling.
He is making things hard for me.
He knows better.

The world through his eyes
I’m enjoying spending time with Dad this morning.
This game is fun and I don’t feel like stopping.
I’m not sure I want to get on the bus – it is really loud.

What happens
Your teen refuses to set the table.

Possible judgments
She is being defiant
She is unreliable
She only cares about herself
She knows better

The world through her eyes
I’m just trying to relax after a long day.
Mom is always telling me what to do. I’m tired of being bossed around.
My best friend isn’t friends with me anymore

What happens
You are late to the meeting again.

Possible judgments
I’m always late
I can’t get it together and I’m not being a team player.
My partner doesn’t help enough

The world through the inside eyes
I feeling embarrassed and afraid I’m not doing enough work for the team.
I’m frustrated that the baby sitter was late again this morning.
I did my best, but my partner was supposed to get the kids off to school there was a work emergency.

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