Can empathy be taught? (A complete guide)

In this article, we will answer the question ‘Can empathy be taught?’. We will do that by defining empathy and describing whether it is an innate or learned behavior. We will then discuss why empathy is taught and who can learn from it. Finally, we will discuss how empathy can be taught.

Can empathy be taught? 

Yes, empathy can be taught effectively to other people. However, teaching someone to be empathetic does not happen overnight,  it is a long and gradual process.  This is because helping a person to understand other people’s emotions can take a lot of investment with respect to time and emotions.  Results can be promising if one stays consistent.

Empathy

Empathy refers to the ability to understand another person’s feelings and emotions.  An empath is able to understand and communicate their concern to other people.  Showing empathy is an important social skill that helps to deepen the connection with other people and resolve conflicts.  It also helps to ease the pain of others and makes them feel less alone in their pain.  Empaths have the ability to identify connections between thoughts,  emotions, and feelings.  They can connect it with people and different situations in order to understand their emotional experience thoroughly.

Empathy: Innate or Learned

It is often wondered whether empathy is innate or whether it can be learned.  Prior research suggests that empathy is innate, but  we also know that if taught effectively,  it can develop and grow over time.  Children are perfect candidates for learning empathy.  Whereas,  people who are born with conditions like autism,  narcissistic personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder, are at a disadvantage because they are born with impaired empathy.  Teaching empathy to such people can be quite a challenge.  However,  motivation and willingness can help make this possible.

Teaching Empathy

People are aware of the benefits of empathy and a lot of them are looking to improve their empathic skills in order to improve the quality of their relationships.  Due to this,  we find it common when instructors are called to training seminars and workshops to teach empathy to adults.  Similarly,  workshops that are based on conflict resolution, and are spiritual or religious in nature,  they also teach skills of empathy in some form.  They are usually accompanied by role-playing and active listening.  This is because these skills help people to tune into others’ experience and practice responding in an appropriate manner.

One can teach others to be empathetic by first improving their own empathy first.  It simply involves being attentive,  listen actively, respond appropriately, and show compassion for other people.

How Empathy can be taught

There are a few methods to teach empathy.  We will describe them in detail as follows:

Roleplaying. The first and most effective way to teach empathy is through role play.  This further includes the following components:

The first step is to practice listening without interrupting.  It is important when someone is telling you something or expressing their emotions,  you respond by listening to them with complete attention.  Try to hold back your opinions.  Also,  so do not rush to respond.  Wait till the other person is finished completing their story before responding.  You can practice this by holding a mock session with a model.  It can be your friend,  family member, or relative.  While listening,  it is important that you make eye contact and not engage in surface-level listening.  Actually, try to go beyond the surface of what the other person is saying.  Do not just listen for the sake of responding later on.

 The next step is clarification.  In order to identify whether you have understood the other person in the correct manner,  try to paraphrase what they have said and ask for feedback about whether you have understood them correctly or not.  Saying the same verbatim back in different words can help clarify any misunderstandings.

 For example Person A:  ‘When I got my medical report back,  I was completely quiet and could not say anything’.

Person B paraphrases and says:  ‘From what I’ve understood,  you are saying that you were so shocked upon getting your medical report that you could not say anything.  Am I correct?’’

If person B is not correct, person A can clarify and restate their message.  It also gives them the impression that person B is actually trying to understand them. 

The next thing is to try to identify other persons’ nonverbal and verbal cues.  After you have mastered the skill of identifying feelings of other people based on their verbatim,  try to build your skill of identifying their body language.  Notice how each emotion is associated with particular facial expressions,  tone of voice,  body language, and the choice of words. 

 For example:  upon realizing that Person A was shocked, person B remembers that she froze and was not showing any extra movement.  Her expression was completely still.  At one point,  her eyes had widened and her mouth was open.  She was not speaking.  When she finally spoke,  her tone was low .she was speaking with pauses and stammering in between as well. 

Understanding the link between emotions and body language can help detect other people’s emotions before they start talking.

The next step would be to imagine stepping into the shoes of other people.  This can be done by imagining different scenarios and trying to understand the experience of the people in it.  For example:  during a movie you see two characters fighting each other.  Discuss with a friend how the character may be thinking and feeling.  Identify their verbal and nonverbal cues to support your argument

Practice meditation.  Daily take out 5 for 10 minutes to breathe deeply and think of good things about yourself.  Practice positive affirmations like’ I am worthy’ I am trying my best’ etc. After learning to meditate like this,  extend this meditation process to strangers and send them positive Vibes.  Help connect to your kind side and view the world from the same perspective.

Another possibility is to go out and observe people in your surroundings. Make up scenarios

and stories in your head about what they might be feeling thinking or doing. Notice their body language and their sense of style to get to know more about them.

Try to identify commonalities among people and what makes them similar. This can help a person to be more tolerant and loving towards human beings as a whole.

Use mindfulness while engaging in daily activities.  Think about your senses while doing something and also about how many people have contributed to any simple action that you are doing. 

For example, While drinking tea,  think of how farmers who have harvested tea leaves and the store owner and the mechanics have brought you the joy of having this cup.  Practice your gratitude towards them.

Read fiction and learn to understand the main characters’ experiences including their emotions, thoughts, and motivations. Start volunteering in different communities in order to serve humanity and feel the satisfaction of giving back to the community.

Start using empathy in your personal life.  Give people your complete attention and minimize any distractions that steer the conversation away from them and their words.

Try to use words identifying feelings and emotions in your daily conversation.  For example,  I was angry or I was shocked etc.

Try to understand and respond appropriately to other people. Use your body language to mirror them. You can even use some physical gestures like holding their hand or hugging them. But make sure the other person is comfortable with that. In situations in which you don’t know how to respond,  you can just practice by being there and quietly listen.

 Inspire others to do something productive.  Help them through your actions and office systems if words are not enough.

Introduction 

FAQs: Can empathy be taught?

 What is empathy?

 Empathy refers to the skill of trying to understand what another person is thinking or feeling.  It helps an individual to see the world from their perspective. 

Can you teach yourself empathy?

Yes, empathy can be taught to oneself.  It can be done by going through formal or informal training.  The first step is to try to imagine yourself in another person’s shoes and see the world from their perspective.

Can empathy be learned by adults?

Yes, empathy can be learned by adults.  Studies have shown that going through formal training can actually improve the levels of empathy of adults.  We can start by trying to identify the emotions and body language of people and the connection between them.

Conclusion

In this article, we answered the question ‘Can empathy be taught?. We found that empathy can be taught effectively to other people. However, teaching someone to be empathetic does not happen overnight,  it is a long and gradual process.  This is because helping a person to understand other people’s emotions can take a lot of investment with respect to time and emotions.  Results can be promising if one stays consistent.

 I hope you found this article interesting. If you have any queries or comments, please state them in the comment section 😊

Citations

https://www.wikihow.com/Teach-Empathy-to-Adults

Divya is currently a Clinical Psychology Trainee in a Master of Philosophy program and holds a Master’s in clinical psychology. She has a special interest in Personality studies and disorders, having researched the subject before, and Neuropsychology; with an additional interest being Mood disorders. She likes to write about Psychiatric issues, having worked in multiple specialty setups during her time as a clinical psychology student, and in her free time she likes to cook and read.