Employing Empathy in Learning

8 Jul 2022
Employing Empathy in Learning

Have you ever experienced another person’s emotions as your own? 

Has a book, movie, or photograph ever driven you to tears? 

If your answer is “yes” to either or both of these questions, then you have experienced empathy. 

So, what is empathy?  

Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings in a situation from their perspective and not your own. It is a way by which you connect with other people that shows you understand that they are experiencing something meaningful and why they have these feelings. Keep in mind that empathy isn’t the same as sympathy. Sympathy often involves a lot of judgement while there is none with empathy. 

Empathy is important in our personal as well as professional lives. It not only instills compassion for others, and makes us more relatable to friends, loved ones, co-workers, and even strangers, but also has a beneficial impact on the world. The below example will help us further understand what empathy means. 

Imagine your co-worker has been having a difficult week due to which they will need to work over the weekend to ensure they complete their workload for that week. Your co-worker confides in you regarding the mountain of work facing them. Rather than pointing out the reasons why they are in such a situation, you show that you understand the predicament they are in, provide some suggestions that could help complete the work sooner, and even offer to help over the weekend to assist with their workload. That’s empathy! 1 

Renowned psychologists, Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman, have identified three components of empathy as shown below in Figure 1:  

Figure 1: Components of Empathy 2

Benefits of Using Empathy 

The benefits to incorporating empathy in our day-to-day interactions at the workplace (see Figure 2) include: 

Figure 2: Benefits of Using Empathy 3

As illustrated above, learning effectiveness can be enhanced by incorporating empathy in the designing of learning materials. Empathy can be incorporated at multiple milestones of the learning journey, right from requirements gathering to curriculum designing as well as evaluating process after instruction.  

Illustrated below are a few examples of incorporating empathy at different stages of the learning journey: 

Empathy in Learning 

Requirements Gathering: 

With the right set of questions that triggers what learners need, their aspirations, and their interests is the first key step while designing a learning journey for your audience. By being aware of others’ emotions and feelings, you could leverage empathy here. To achieve this, try to answer the following questions: 

  • The vision or THE WHY of this requirement: Why is it important for your people? What are its benefits? How can this learning journey help your learners? 

  • How should this entire program be designed? What is the best way for your learners to learn? How can we achieve the learning outcomes we desire by designing solutions that your audience finds interesting? 

  • Who is your audience? – educational qualification, cultural differences, experience levels, prior knowledge. Being sensitive to people’s learning, time, and cultural preferences is the key element to consider while designing your learning solution. 

Design: 

Let’s look at an example of how we could design a learning solution by employing empathy. 

I remember when there was a need to design a face-to-face workshop on public speaking as a part of my organizational learning strategy. This involved designing the workshop and associated materials to cater to an audience diverse in age, sex, ethnicity, culture, educational background, and experiences. 

I wanted to design this training with a human-centric approach. Following are certain things that I considered important: 

Storytelling – always helps to engage people, encourages listening to different perspectives, and brings in connection and collaboration. Beginning with a presentation video of successful public speakers talking about their journey and struggles created those right emotions of understanding the struggle and hard work to accomplish this learning goal of public speaking. 

Group discussion – gives the opportunity to learners to share their opinions, beliefs, and experiences around the topic. This not just helped in improving their knowledge on the subject, but also helped in showing their authentic self to people and immediate application of public speaking concepts in their roles. 

Evaluation: 

Upon implementation of the training across the pilot, to test its effectiveness, one of the most important steps is to determine how the training was received and the learning outcomes accomplished. 

Creating learner-centric feedback survey, with empathetic questions, can help collect insights on the usefulness of the training to the learners, and their ability to apply it at their workplaces. The ideal way to evaluate your training is to intelligently use cognitive empathy to get learners’ perspectives, and compassionate empathy to use these insights to support your learners’ needs. 

Next time, when you design your training, do make a conscious unbiased effort to keep your learners at the center and deploy empathy at every step. 

Finally, do remember as Brene Brown, Researcher, University of Houston + University of Texas at Austin says: 

Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of “You’re not alone.” 

References: 

  1. Genuine Examples of Showing Empathy. yourdictionary. Wilson K. Accessed June 10, 2022. https://examples.yourdictionary.com/genuine-examples-of-showing-empathy.html 

  1. The Empathy by Design Approach to Problem-Based Learning in ELA. Voices from the Middle. Kerkoff S, Mardi F. Accessed June 10, 2022. https://sheakerkhoff.weebly.com/uploads/2/1/0/6/21062440/kerkhoff___mardi_vm2_sep21.pdf 

  1. 7 Benefits of Empathy in the Workplace. Civcom. Dano M. Accessed June 10, 2022. https://www.civcom.com/blog/7benefits