Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Importance of Empathy

Last year I facilitated a day-long learning discussion about empathy, one of the six senses in Dan Pink's book A Whole New Mind. I brought together leaders from a school and a children's hospital to talk about empathy. These groups seemed well suited to talk about empathy because a school and a hospital are both empathic businesses. They both have to operate efficiently and effectively (numbers driven) yet they deal with people (high need for empathy) at every turn. Some of the beginning questions were what is empathy? Why is empathy important in the health care environment and the learning environment? Can you measure and develop empathy as a skill?

You can measure empathy. You can develop empathy. And, there is much to be gained by doing both.

Recently I came across a post by Jenifer Fox, author of Your Child's Strength, that reminded me of A Whole New Mind. The triggering word was meaning, also one of Dan Pink's six senses. Fox's post, Parents Help Children Map Out A Meaningful Future, declares that "our young people deserve to discover a path in life that is full of meaning." Fox states how important it is to ask our kids about what they like, what they believe they are good at, and how important it is to take our children's ideas seriously. Fox notices that "adults have forgotten what it actually feels like to be a child." To me this can be translated as we have lost our empathy for children, childhood, innocence, and dreams. Fox directs us adults to think back and remember our childhood experiences and our childhood ideals.

By asking adults, both parents and teachers, to tap into childhood and school memories, both the good and the painful, what Fox is doing is helping us get in touch with our empathy. I find that we adults can become too task-oriented so much so that we lose sight of the real job at hand for parents and for teachers, which is to support children in experiencing and learning about the world and their place in it. Often we adults become more concerned with getting items off our to-do lists than motivating the curiosity of children. A motivated and curious child is a learner. By doing whatever we can do to foster curiosity, by promoting dreaming and idealistic passions and goals, I believe we can instill in our children a motivation to learn that will last a life long. Today's children, tomorrow's leaders. It begins with empathy.

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