Empathy: Exploring the Deeper Connections

As a community we continue to engage on our school theme for the year Empathy and Ethical Thinking. Whether it is through professional development for faculty and staff, programming with students, a more intentional focus in classes, or presentations to our parent community, it has been a tremendous experience so far this year.

Over the first few months, one theme that consistently comes up is the difference between Empathy and Sympathy. In a recent Upper School Morning Meeting, I showed the following video by Brené Brown.

The video vividly points out the differences between sympathy and empathy. This past week, the Parent’s Association welcomed Dr. Helen Riess, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of Empathy Research and Training in Psychotherapy Research group at Mass General Hospital, to talk about her research in Empathetics. Near the beginning of her talk (click here for an earlier version at a TEDx Event), she highlighted the Greek etymology difference of “sympathy” and “empathy”. Sympathy coming from “sym” “pathos”, meaning with suffering, and empathy coming from “em” “pathos, meaning in suffering.

If we start with the most basic definition of these words, the difference is so clear. To have empathy literally means to be in the same feelings as the other person. This idea means a person has developed a deeper connection to friend, family member, colleague, or stranger by being in that moment with them, with those feelings. In addition to this clear definition, Dr. Riess highlighted that compassion is the action that we take when displaying empathy. She differentiated that the empathy was the internal feelings you have, while compassion is the action you take towards a person.

As teachers and school administrators, the question becomes what does this mean to our students? What are the ways that students may develop empathetic responses towards their classmates? And how do we guide students towards learning with empathy?

The first comes through the regular conversations we have on an individual basis, in small groups, and as a community. What does it mean for a child if they see a friend looking sad or more reserved? We are trying to help students understand that these are times to engage with their friends and not avoid them. In many ways, this has been something that Brimmer students have regularly displayed. Often, listening to their friends and helping them when possible. The more complicated situations for students come when a person’s actions may be hurtful. The automatic human response, especially adolescents, is to rebuke the person. With teenagers, this can often have impacts on social circles which just furthers any divide that may be created between each other.

What if instead, we were able to help the members of the community to have an empathetic response?

Our hope, through this year’s theme, is to help students move past the hurt and work to understand what the other person may have been feeling. Perhaps someone is not hanging out on the weekends, because they have a family member that was recently diagnosed with a serious medical condition. Or could someone that is carrying a lot of anger, be carrying guilt for a decision they made at a different time.

In our classes, we are highlighting the importance of empathy as well. This takes a front row seat in Humanities and Creative Arts classes, where the foci of these classes is the human experience. Just imagine the last book you read or show you watched and the connection you developed with the characters. In history, teachers are helping students see history through more than one lens. This fall US History students have debated George Washington’s decision to maintain the status quo on slavery and recently discussed the question- should we celebrate Christopher Columbus or think about Thanksgiving in a different way based on the experiences of people that were colonized by Europeans?”

In our design classes, students regularly are working to understand the user as they developed their ideas. As a parent recently mentioned to me, “empathy is one of the pillars of design.” This comes to life in classes like Problem Solving for Design and Architecture, as students spend significant amounts of time learning about the needs of the users and important cultural information. I would invite you to explore more at the BrimmerID portfolio page.

Regardless of where students may end up falling on these debates, breaks from the normal routine provide an opportunity to pause and reflect. Whether the time-off means time with family and friends, volunteering, or just a slower pace, I hope that students can use the time to connect in a deep, meaningful, and empathetic way.