How We See Empathy

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

“Please don’t yell my name and poke me. Can you see that I am having a conversation with someone else?”

“We don’t call people ‘stupid.’ They have a right to their opinion just like you.”

My daily life consists of phrases like this coming out my mouth every few minutes. In children like my students, empathy is still being developed in their brain. Why do we need empathy though? After all, glory be, it seems as though children are not the worst offenders.

As you know, empathy is our understanding of another person’s condition. When someone is sick, we console them because we have felt illness too. Or when, say, millions of people flee their home country from violence. How does the empathy of other countries’ citizens come into play when those refugees are welcomed or not welcomed?

Empathy is a different animal in the adult world. There are always things for which empathy is easy, like illness and other physical discomforts. However, things become murky in a world where our personal gain is at stake: business, competition, collecting resources, survival, or belief systems.

Forbes published an article on empathy in business, asking the question of whether empathy is “indulgence or invaluable?”

President Cabrera [President of George Mason University] often challenges graduating MBA students to capture the essence of a business with a simple question: What is a business? To his dismay, most students respond that a business is a function where money goes in and more money comes out. Cabrera sternly corrects them. His answer: “At its very heart, a business is the beauty of bringing together people and things to make the community better off—these are the businesses we admire. Empathy is the one tool that makes it all happen.” (…)

The question remains, what is next? Will we embrace the potential of empathy as a foundational element for better business, team and individual performance, or will we continue to look at it as a mere indulgence, a soft skill, a “nice-to-have” attribute?

When my students are not showing empathy towards one another, I pause all activities and teach the emotional lesson now at hand. One of the organizations mentioned in the Forbes article, Ashoka, is a social entrepreneur network that focuses on programs and companies for social change. One of these is Start Empathy, which published this article about the connection between music education and a student’s capacity for empathy. The original research can be found here, but below is a snippet:

Researchers at the University of Cambridge observed 28 girls and 24 boys, all between the ages of 8 and 11, from four different schools in the United Kingdom with a similar socioeconomic makeup.

Roughly half of these children were randomly assigned to a special music program that the researchers designed, where children met once a week in small groups for an entire school year to play games that encourage interaction, imitation, and “mindreading” through music. (…)

The other half of the students also participated in weekly games that encouraged interaction and imitation, but their games were without music, using techniques like storytelling and drama instead.

Before and after participating in either of the two groups, all children in the study took an array of tests to measure their “emotional empathy,” or their ability to experience another’s emotional state as their own. (…)

The results show that after the school year ended, empathy increased significantly among children in the music group but not in the group that played non-musical games. (…)

The increased empathy among children in the music group suggests that interacting through music may hone our general ability to share the psychological states of others.

Will music education be the key to help both children and adults develop their sense of empathy? I don’t know, probably not. Yes, we all like music. We all listen to music. We are surrounded by music in elevators, shopping malls, public transit. However, the consumption of music is not the point. It’s the doing, the performing, the making.

Solution. Politicians, businessmen: begin every meeting, summit, or United Nations gathering with group music-making.

Weird? Yes! But you think part of me is not being serious?


“Stay safe, and be peaceful to one another.”

~ Mark Wheat

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