Blog post by: Dr. Shweta Verma* & Deepali Bajaj**
Is empathy just a skill? or a trait as well? Is it true that some people are born empaths? Who wins the debate between nature v/s nurture? The answer simply is, it is both! Largely, it can be learnt and practiced everyday.
People understand and talk about empathy in broadly three ways:
- Matching: Many people talk about empathy as ‘matching of emotions’- where your feelings are connected with or are similar to how others feel. This kind of empathic response is automatic and develops early in human beings as well as animals (Heyes, 2018). Role of oxytocin and vasopressin has been found to influence social affiliation and a wide range of social behaviors, such as empathy, eye-contact, and so on (Masten, 2015).
- Understanding & responding: This is what Heyes (2018) calls ‘controlled processing’ where you observe, understand and appraise the scenario before responding.
- Compassionate response: This is where one tends to focus on larger good, and act in ways to avoid or remove sufferings in life of people. In this version, people may not match with others’ feelings or actually understand what people need or are going through. Most scientists focus on the previous two understandings of empathy rather than this one (Heyes,2018).
Understanding empathy as a skill
Arguing that empathy is largely a learnt skill, Heyes (2018) states that “every biological characteristic depends on a rich, turbulent stew of genetic and environmental factors”. As a skill, empathy grows gradually. The foundation for empathy is laid in early experiences, such as relationships with parents or primary caregivers (Poole, Miller, & Church, 2005). Poole, Miller and Church (2005) describe how empathy develops in stages from age 0-6 years and list actions that can be taken to develop this skill further. While children may be affected by how others feel, the capacity to understand the perspective of others and respond empathically – often evolves when children
- Observe feelings & behaviors of others around them in diverse situations
- Observe adults’ reactions to distress or problems of others
- Receive opportunities for expression of own feelings
- Reflect and engage in discussions on what might help them and others feel better in similar situations
Steps that you can take as a parent, teacher, or a caregiver to nurture empathy in a child
Empathy has to be nurtured through everyday expressions, observation, role-modeling, and opportunities.
- Help children understand:
- Each of us can have different thoughts & feelings in similar situations.
- Asking is better than assuming
- It is important to not be dismissive or making fun of how others’ feel
2. Create opportunities for children to experience diversity in communities, as well as to express thoughts & feelings in safe ways.
3. Be a role model yourself by:
- Sharing your own feelings assertively
- Avoiding immediate negative reactions to child’s behaviors. First, explore their intentions behind their actions.
- Show concern for & interest in knowing views of people who are not family or friends. When children see this, they may do the same.
4. Use books meaningfully: Use of books is considered a great way to build empathy. Cain (2015), giving examples of several books and themes, especially recommends books that represent or focus on
- Persons with disabilities
- People from different cultures
- Dystopian societies
- Multi-layered stories with characters that are multi-dimensional
You can explore many such books in What Ginny Reads Series. Click Here
Empathy is one of the pillars on which Ginny’s Planet stands. The course on Practicing Empathy is a part of the series of Core Workshops offered by Ginny’s Planet to children and adults!
About Ginny’s Planet:
Ginny’s Planet is a social enterprise Co-founded by Dr. Shweta Verma in 2019. The brand runs on the core value of helping our teachers and parents to teach their children to become independent, smart and better leaders by equipping them with a deep understanding of empathy, diversity, disability and inclusion. Dr. Shweta and the team design events, workshops and products to help guardians & schools to develop kids’ mindset and evolve as adaptive and flexible human beings. They work with schools to organise workshops for children and teachers.
Other readings you should explore
- WGU (Nov 1, 2019) Empathetic leadership: a skill or innate trait? WGU Blog
- Empathy Facts Series by Ginny’s Planet
- Church, E. B. (n.d.). Ages & Stages: Empathy | Scholastic. Scholastic
- Rogers, K. (2020, June 24). Empathy is both a trait and a skill. Here’s how to strengthen it. CNN.
- Cain, M. A. (2015). Children’s Books for Building Character and Empathy. Journal of Invitational Theory and Practice, 21, 68-94.
- Heyes, C. (2018). Empathy is not in our genes. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 95, 499-507.
- Masten, A. S. (2015). The Neurobiology of Resilience. In Ordinary magic: Resilience in Development (p.174-195). Guilford Publications.
- Poole, C., Miller, S. A., & Church, E. B. (2005). How Empathy Develops: Effective Responses to Children Help Set the Foundation for Empathy. Early Childhood Today, 20(2), 21-25.
*Dr. Shweta Verma: CEO of Ginny’s Planet. She is a social work professional with experience in disability rights & mental health field. She has led several workshops with children and NGO workers on empathy.
** Deepali Bajaj: Intern- Content Design, Ginny’s Planet