How does one teach empathy? It is an important tool to teach kids, and it turns out that there are some discreet skills to the practice of empathy.
The first is the ability to read non-verbal communications, particularly facial expressions, which brings us to the work of Paul Ekman, Ph.D. who has been studying facial expressions across cultures for about 25 years, I believe.
Professor Ekman has worked to categorize facial expressions and has established some interesting facts, for example some facial expressions are cross cultural, like an expression of disgust or contempt.
But for our purposes, teaching empathy, we need to note that facial expressions play across our face as fast as 1/25th second, which is about 2 and 1/2 times as fast as I can blink my eyes.
At that speed, expressions are processed subconsciously, rather than consciously, but the good news is that because of our mirror neurons, we sense what the our conversational partner is experiencing and then we can ask if we are accurate in our perception, which is an incredibly important part of the trust building experience in a counselor-client relationship.
Oftentimes, just the act of listening attentively will help the other individual relax, because most of the time, what others want to have heard is their feeling about the current situation, and when they perceive they are being listened to, they relax.
However, another important part of the skill of empathy is teaching people how to relax, particularly if I am listening to a child.
Having a couple of breathing or visualization skills handy is cool, or teach the Quick Coherence tool from HeartMath, which follows.
1. Focus on the area of your chest around your heart. (Switch from the external to the internal).
2. Breathe through your heart 10 times, and remember a positive fun time. Try to re-experience it fully.
3. Ask your heart, which has a brain of its own, and can learn and make decisions independently of your other brain, how to handle this situation less stressfully in the future.
According to Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi,Ph.D., author of the very interesting book FLOW, we humans can process sensory data, in other words visual data like the subtle changes in expressions discussed above, and changes in tone of voice in packets of data including up to 7 bits of data, and the shortest amount of time between packets is 1/18th second.
It takes me 1/10th second to blink my eyes, so I am processing observations of another person's emotional state very rapidly, and mostly unconsciously, unless I am trained to note how I feel as I engage in conversation with another.
A skill which really helps me to listen closely would therefore be a powerful tool in teaching empathy.
My mentor in the domestic violence field, Tony Kubicki,M.S., taught me this model a couple of decades ago, and we will call it reflective listening. When I listen carefully I can watch another who is feeling upset calm down, simply because someone is listening.
1. First, I have to make a commitment to listen, which means I neither agree nor disagree, I just listen.
2. Then, I begin to repeat their words to myself, with the intention of repeating a summarization back to them, which I do every so often. By repeating their words to myself, I am keeping myself from preparing a retort.
3. Having made a reflection back to my speaker, I ask if I have heard them accurately, and wait for their response. If they say no, I simply ask them to repeat the message to me, until they say yes, you have heard me accurately.
4. In my summarization statement, I may include an observation about the emotions I am seeing.
An example of how I might start a reflection/summary might be, " Sounds like you are feeling really angry, and you want your husband/daughter/son/wife to help out more around the house with dishes, laundry, vacuuming...Did I hear you accurately?"
If I practice a bit, I can even listen empathically when it is my house cleaning skills that are under scrutiny. Remember I am listening, neither agreeing or disagreeing, and I have made this commitment because the speaker deserves to be heard. When you can remember to do this, you are truely giving the gift of attention, and there will be a great payoff in increased intimacy.
When I commit to paying attention to expressions and the emotional message in them and listening for the story line and emotions in the story line, I have gone a long way towards being empathic.
The Heartmath process will help me keep the higher perceptual centers of my brain open, while I do empathy, and empathy then becomes a heart beat by heart beat process.
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When I was beginning my personal growth journey, a wise person told me that when I was feeling resentful or afraid or sad, that I should remember the phrase "gratitude is the attitude" when I was ready to feel better. That phrase has helped me feel better tens of thousands of times.
Would you share what you are most grateful for? Your story could be just what another person is searching for to renew themselves? Thanks.
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