Empathy Day - founded by EmpathyLab, an organisation focused on building children’s empathy skills, aims ‘to help everyone understand and experience the transformational power of empathy through stories’. This year’s theme is: walking in someone else’s shoes.
What is empathy?
Empathy is an understanding of how others feel; you have an understanding of the world around you, and of other people. You're able to experience someone else’s point of view, not just your own. You are more likely to be open and tolerant of other people, if you are able to empathise with them and gain an understanding of why they are the way they are.
In the past year it’s possible that we’ve collectively felt more empathy than ever before. Due to the pandemic, we’ve wondered what it must be like to be locked down in a place where you don’t feel safe. What it must be like to be an NHS worker, working in the midst of a crisis. How it might feel to lose a loved one to covid and not be able to say goodbye. The Black Lives Matter movement and resulting conversations have perhaps made us think more deeply about race and racism, our own biases and views. We’ve put ourselves in someone else’s shoes many times and tried to understand how that might feel. We’ve had time to reflect.
As research professor Brené Brown says in a brilliant animated RSA short on empathy: “Empathy fuels connection.” This past year, distanced from those we know and love, we’ve never needed the feeling of connection more.
How does reading help us connect with others?
The Reading Agency recently reported that the nation read more during lockdown - many people cited reading as “a form of release, escapism or distraction”.
31% of UK people surveyed* were reading more since the lockdown began, 51% surveyed said their reading habits hadn't changed, and only 3% were reading less.
Perhaps there was also a subconscious need for us to connect with others? Connect with others’ lives? And reading provided a channel to do that?
“Reading has huge power to make you see things from another person’s point of view.” - Sue Wilkinson, formerly CEO of The Reading Agency
Reading builds real-life empathy. If we are reading and learning about someone else’s life, we are open to learning about other worlds and other cultures. Reading gives us the chance to see things from a new perspective, as deeply immersed as we are in someone else’s world.
You experience empathy when you have become immersed in a story; you feel the pain or the sadness, or the shame or the outrage another person feels, as expressed through the words on the page.
Reflect on a book you recently read. How did you empathise with the characters? Did you recognise how they were feeling through your own experiences?
“In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” - Brené Brown
What if you’re still building those emotional experiences? This is a large part of childhood development. Through reading you can discover what the world is like for other people, outside of your own particular bubble.
“Readers have a stronger and more engaged awareness of social issues and of cultural diversity than non-readers: their template of what the world is, is widened, and their place within it feels more secure.” Dr Josie Billington, deputy director of the Centre for Research into Reading at the University of Liverpool
In our comprehension intervention, one of the twelve mini-skills we teach is called ‘Emotion Journey’. The focus is on stepping into a character’s shoes at a specific moment in the story and thinking about how they might feel.
“The more you empathise with characters, the more you understand other people’s feelings.” - empathylab.uk
A sentence from the story is selected and the learners decide how that character is feeling at that moment. How might they feel in their position? Is it a positive or negative feeling, or neutral? There’s a slider scale which learners can move, from an unhappy face through to a happy face or somewhere inbetween.
We’re encouraging learners to empathise with the characters and articulate the emotion. There is no right or wrong answer - it’s based on their personal opinion. Perhaps the learner can reflect on their own experiences to help form a view. Or they can use their imagination.
The importance of empathy
Psychologists specify that young people need strong empathy skills in order to form the strong relationships they need to learn and thrive.
Companies have a growing awareness of the importance of the values of empathy, compassion and kindness in the workplace, and are reevaluating what their company culture looks like.
We know we need empathy if we are to succeed in achieving social change and an awareness of cultural diversity.
What are you doing to celebrate Empathy Day? Which character have you recently empathised with?
=============================*Populus Omnibus survey, 15-16 April 2020, sample 2,103
Sample Emotion Journey for yourself by clicking here.