David Wilkinson

Author and expert on Ambiguity and Emotional Resilience.

How to teach empathy

How to teach empathy
One of the central tenets about emotional resilience is that it is not about being 'teflon person', without feelings and emotions or even cutting off from our emotions. The idea is more about the ability to be able to bounce back from an emotional ‘hit’ to being ‘level’ and level headed as fast as possible when needed. The scientific term is emotion regulation. This means staying in touch with our emotions, knowing how they are effecting us moment to moment, particularly when we are making decisions, using our emotions (to access our intuition (our feeling for something)) and importantly being able to empathise, especially in difficult situations.
This ability to regulate our emotions and empathise gives us the vital ability to be able to flick between objective and subjective view points of view whilst assessing a situation. Empathy is a central part of resilience. Truly resilient people can stay connected to people and act with empathy regardless of what is happing around them.
A new study just published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology has looked at a range of research to see if there any common findings about whether and how empathy can be taught.
Their first finding from viewing this body of evidence is that it is possible to have people develop empathy through a training programme (something we have been doing with leaders for some time now).
Additionally the study found that there are a number of factors which contributed to the success of empathy training. 
  1. Focussing on helping people recognise and understand the emotions of others,
  2. Have them learn to accurately describe and assess the feelings of others from a range of points of contact like facial expressions, behaviour, tone and language,
  3. Have them feel those emotions, even vicariously,
  4. Use objective measures of emotion during the training rather than self reported measures and assessments, 
  5. And lastly they found that engagement in the programme makes a difference. People who have an interest in developing empathy tend to do better on such programmes. No real surprise on this one, it applies to all training. No engagement = no learning.
van Berkhout, E. T., & Malouff, J. M. (2015). The Efficacy of Empathy Training: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of Counseling Psychology, July, 2015


I am running a series of 4 free interlinked and live webinars based on the findings of my research (to be published next year):

  1. How to develop emotional resilience across entire populations,
  2. Increasing 'Flow' in organisations
  3. Developing a culture of continuous change, and getting people to love it, and
  4. Increasing organisational tolerance for uncertainty and change.

The LIVE webinars will start on Monday 9th November and run for four weeks.

* You will be able to interact, download handouts and get your questions answered - live.


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