There has been a 40% drop in measured college student empathy since 2000 (Konrath, 2010). But is empathy really important for students? Empathy has been shown to improve test scores, develop leadership skills, strengthen classroom community, provide career skills, increase emotional intelligence, and reduce learner stress and reactivity.
Given the major drop in empathy, can college students develop more empathy? Researcher Roman Krznaric believes that people can “expand their ’empathic potential.'” In his article, “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People,” he argues that “we can cultivate empathy throughout our lives” (2012).
According to Krznaric, empathy is the “ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions. That makes it different from kindness or pity….The old view that we are essentially self-interested creatures is being nudged firmly to one side by evidence that we are also homo empathicus, wired for empathy, social cooperation, and mutual aid.”
He suggests 6 habits to raise our empathy:
Habit 1: Cultivate Curiosity about Strangers
“Curiosity expands our empathy when we talk to people outside our usual social circle, encountering lives and worldviews very different from our own. Psychologist Martin Seligman identifies it as a key character strength that can enhance life satisfaction. And it is a useful cure for the chronic loneliness afflicting around one in three Americans. Cultivating curiosity requires more than having a brief chat about the weather. Crucially, it tries to understand the world inside the head of the other person. Set yourself the challenge of having a conversation with one stranger every week.”
Habit 2: Challenge Prejudices and Discover Commonalities
We all have assumptions about others and use collective labels about others “that prevent us from appreciating their individuality.” He suggests you challenge your “preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what [you] share with people rather than what divides them.” Go beyond the labels and seek common ground. Thus the first two habits to increase empathy can contribute to cultural tolerance and diversity awareness.
Habit 3: Try Another Person’s Life
People should “expand their empathy by gaining direct experience of other people’s lives.” Consider an experiment. Attend religious services of faiths different from your own, or a meeting of a non-religious community. “Or if you’re an atheist, try attending different churches!” Spend some time volunteering in a town or city. “Take the path favored by philosopher John Dewey, who said, ‘All genuine education comes about through experience.'” Those instructors who assign service learning might reap a two-fold benefit, asking students to also report on any experience of increased empathy as a result of their project.
Habit 4: Listen Hard-and Open Up
“There are two traits required for being an empathic conversationalist. One is to master the art of radical listening. ‘What is essential,’ says Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist and founder of Non-Violent Communication (NVC), ‘is our ability to be present to what’s really going on within-to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that very moment.'”
People with high empathy [HEPs] “listen hard to others and do all they can to grasp their emotional state and needs, whether it is a friend who has just been diagnosed with cancer or a spouse who is upset at them for working late yet again. But listening is never enough.
The second trait is to make ourselves vulnerable. Removing our masks and revealing our feelings to someone is vital for creating a strong empathic bond. Empathy is a two-way street that, at its best, is built upon mutual understanding-an exchange of our most important beliefs and experiences.”
Habit 5: Inspire Mass Action and Social Change
“We typically assume empathy happens at the level of individuals, but HEPs understand that empathy can also be a mass phenomenon that brings about fundamental social change. Just think of the movements against slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries on both sides of the Atlantic. As journalist Adam Hochschild reminds us, ‘The abolitionists placed their hope not in sacred texts but human empathy,’ doing all they could to get people to understand the very real suffering on the plantations and slave ships.
The overwhelming public response to the Asian tsunami of 2004 emerged from a sense of empathic concern for the victims, whose plight was dramatically beamed into our homes on shaky video footage….Canada’s pioneering Roots of Empathy, the world’s most effective empathy teaching program…has benefited over half a million school kids. Its unique curriculum centers on an infant, whose development children observe over time in order to learn emotional intelligence-and its results include significant declines in playground bullying and higher levels of academic achievement.”
Habit 6: Develop an Ambitious Imagination
Krznaric believes that “we also need to empathize with people whose beliefs we don’t share or who may be ‘enemies’ in some way. If you are a campaigner on global warming, for instance, it may be worth trying to step into the shoes of oil company executives-understanding their thinking and motivations-if you want to devise effective strategies to shift them towards developing renewable energy. A little of this ‘instrumental empathy’ (sometimes known as ‘impact anthropology’) can go a long way.
Empathizing with adversaries is also a route to social tolerance. That was Gandhi’s thinking during the conflicts between Muslims and Hindus leading up to Indian independence in 1947, when he declared, ‘I am a Muslim! And a Hindu, and a Christian and a Jew.'”
In the end, Krznaric argues that “the 21st century should become the Age of Empathy, when we discover ourselves not simply through self-reflection, but by becoming interested in the lives of others.” Encourage your students to try out some of the Six Habits of empathy (perhaps begin by trying them yourself).