As we look towards post-pandemic times, the importance of empathy is coming into sharp focus. We’ve seen a wave of community caring based on thinking about others’ needs – a kind of collective act of perspective-taking. That makes 9 June's Empathy Day especially timely.
Empathy opens our eyes to other people’s perspectives, resulting in better relationships and more understanding ways of behaving towards each other. It has a unique power to combat hatred and prejudice.
It’s also a vital life skill – empathetic children go on to become wonderful parents, workmates, and citizens. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.
Empathy is learnable!
Exciting research shows that empathy is learnable, and that books are a key tool. We’re not just stuck with the empathy quotient we’re born with – scientists say that only 10% of our empathic capacity is genetic. Anything on top of that is learned, and 98% of us are capable of increasing our empathy. And like all skills, it’s best learnt young.
Excitingly, science also shows that we can train our brains through stories. When we read, our brains react in the same way as if the fictional situations were real. This means that we experience characters’ feelings as real, and the experience helps us understand others better in real life.
How to be more empathetic:
Immersing yourselves in books with beautifully written characters is a really practical way to develop your understanding of other people. On Empathy Day, the airwaves are filled with people making #ReadForEmpathy recommendations – you can join in and add your own. And EmpathyLab, the founders of Empathy Day, have guides to 50 empathy-rich books for 4 to 16-year-olds.
Listening is a key element of empathy. Great listening takes practice – it’s hard to concentrate 100% and listen with your whole self, or to stop yourself giving advice when actually just listening is so healing! On Empathy Day LIVE!, Jacqueline Wilson has some great listening tips. Or use the Listening Switch exercise – demonstrated by authors Robin Stevens and Jo Cotterill.
Step into others’ shoes
Empathy involves understanding and experiencing someone else’s feelings and perspectives. Empathy Day’s Family Activities Pack has some fun ways to practise this together – like wearing another family member’s shoes (or carrying an item of their clothing) and spending 15 minutes assuming that person’s identity. Then discuss how it felt to be that person – what did you learn about their life and their perspective?
You can nurture an empathy-focused mindset by using practical ways to imagine life for the people in your local community. Try going on an Empathy Walk together around your local area – there are some great author examples here.
Empathy is the root of real kindness because once you’ve understood someone’s experiences, you can work out the best way to take action to help. Try making Empathy Resolutions, so that every day becomes an empathy day. Examples could be to find out what a lonely neighbour most needs; stop rushing around and listen to your friends; or investigate how to support your local food bank.
Putting empathy into action is powerful!