Can Empathy Be Taught?

In a culture of personality tests and self-reflection, it has become en vogue to “know thyself.” Whether you are an ESTJ or an INFP, you know that everyone is born different and nature plays as much a part as nurture in who we become.

Our current political climate has brought our differences into sharper focus. We can get bogged down in them and increasingly divisive, or we can look to Jesus to show us how we, as Christians, are supposed to act. When faced with someone we don’t understand or with whom we can’t seem to agree, what do we do?

Psychologists tell us that the best way to maintain peace and to truly be there for others is to dig as deep as we need to for empathy. As a refresher, empathy is different from sympathy, in which we feel sorry for someone. Empathy is actually putting yourself in that person’s place and attempting to feel what they are feeling.

Brene Brown, a research professor at University of Houston and a well-respected author and speaker, says, “In order to empathize with someone’s experience you must be willing to believe them as they see it, and not how you imagine their experiences to be.” In other words, you need to shift perspectives, and this requires you to first understand that there ARE other perspectives, and they may even be better, clearer, or sounder than your own.

Some people are very natural at doing this. They have an innate ability to feel others’ emotions and imagine what things must look like from their vantage point. Others find it nearly impossible. It’s not that they are not feeling people; it’s just that their strengths lie elsewhere. This raises the question: Can empathy be taught?

It’s a good question to ask because even if you are an empathetic person, you may have a spouse or a child who is not. Research shows that empathy can be grown, usually slowly and over many experiences, by looking inwardly. More empathetic people tend to be self-aware and confident. They know who they are and are not threatened by people who don’t act or react as they do. They realize that your opinions and actions can co-exist side-by-side with their own. In fact, your views and ideas may round out their own and actually bring greater clarity.

Good listening skills also play a part in empathy and can certainly be taught. Stopping your partner or child from interrupting and encouraging them to truly listen, versus formulating their own rebuttal, is crucial here. If you find yourself guilty of this behavior, make a concerted effort to really listen. Don’t assume you know what the other person is going to say. Pay attention, not just to words but to tone. This will provide a window into others’ passions and priorities.

Try to practice and teach your loved ones positive, non-judgmental regard for others. Think about what therapists and pastors do that allows them to help people scarred by childhood trauma, bad relationships, or internal conflicts. They listen without judgment. They leave their own perspectives and experiences at the doorstep and attempt to understand yours without viewing you as wrong or sinful. And they encourage you, support you, and remind you of everything that makes you wonderful. It’s what keeps you coming back, makes you feel comfortable sharing, and moves you forward on your journey to be better.

As parents, one of the primary and foundational aspects upon which to raise a child is concern for others. Mary Gordon, founder of Roots of Empathy, a school-based program that fosters compassion in children, tells the story of one moment in her childhood that demonstrates how empathy can be taught. “My mom would never embarrass anyone, so she wouldn’t embarrass me as a child either. She saw the dignity in everybody. She would point out when I could have done better. ‘You judged that woman when you made that face,’ she would say. ‘She’s made the best decisions she could with the challenges she has, and you don’t know her challenges.'” In this way, her mother taught her that everyone walks a different path and we should never condescend to someone whose path we don’t understand.

The Bible is filled with lessons around the theme that until you’ve walked a mile in someone else’s shoes, you cannot judge. God is the ultimate judge and that is a relief to the rest of us. We can take “judgment” off our plates and love others as they are.

Rebecca Deurlein
Rebecca Deurlein

Rebecca Deurlein is the author of Teenagers 101: What a top teacher wishes you knew about helping your kid succeed, and President of Teenager Success 101, a one-on-one academic coaching company dedicated to helping kids find success. She blogs and writes internationally, speaks to parents across the nation, and loves every minute of living in Sugar Land, TX. Find her on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Huffington Post, or through her own blog A Teacher’s Guide to Understanding Teenagers. All can be accessed at www.TeenagerSuccess101.com.