U of MN Extension

The Power of Empathy

By Carrie Ann Olson, Extension Educator

May 2017

Connecting with and supporting others is an essential part of our everyday experience.  That’s why empathy – the ability to identify with other people’s struggles and support them – is so important.  Sympathy minimizes someone’s pain, whereas empathy connects us to their pain.  Empathy helps us discovery what we have in common with each other.  Empathy is a skill that develops by practicing giving and receiving empathy.

Think back to a recent conversation you have had where someone shared a challenge or disappoint they have had.  How did you and others behave; were you a bear or a reindeer?  The bear listens and resists the urge to offer advice or try to fix it.  They might have said “It sounds like...”  The reindeer offers silver linings and often responds by saying “At least …”.  Sometimes it is easier to give advice and offer silver linings, but expressing empathy should be our goal.

There are four attributes of empathy:

  1. See the world as others see it. This requires putting your own “stuff” aside to see the situation through someone else's eyes.
  2. Be nonjudgmental.  Judgment of another person’s situation discounts the experience and is an attempt to protect ourselves from the pain of the situation.
  3. Understand another person’s feelings. We have to be in touch with our own feelings in order to understand someone else's.
  4. Communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings. Rather than saying, “At least you…” or “It could be worse…” try, “I’ve been there, and that really hurts,” or, “It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”

Empathy is just one social and emotional learning (SEL) skill.  SEL includes learning to be aware of and manage emotions, work well with others, and work hard when faced with challenges. Youth programs develop SEL skills by creating opportunities for young people to engage in real-world projects, work in teams, take on meaningful roles, face challenges, and experience the emotional ups and downs that come along the way.

A toolkit is now available that includes activities, templates and tools organized around four ways to help engage staff and youth in SEL. It was developed to go along with the 3-hour training, Social and Emotional Learning in Practice and related issue briefs. It is designed primarily for those working with youth in middle school, but with small changes the activities can be used for other age groups too. See the Introduction for an overview of how the toolkit was made. It can be read from start to finish, but it is not meant to be used in order. Select activities that meet your needs and fit with your program design. Get the most out of it by taking the Readiness Inventory first. Your responses will help identify sections of the toolkit that will be most helpful.

For more information, contact Carrie Olson at olson166@umn.edu

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