Empathy isn’t out of reach, in fact…it’s pretty easy to teach!

Alice and the cards 2Are you thinking what I’m thinking? That we need a culture shift, and we need one fast?! Indeed, at times like this – shooting after shooting after shooting – we find ourselves crying out “not one more!” and grasping for understanding, for a sense of control, and for a way to effectively channel our fear into something helpful, productive, and meaningful.

I sure am. I am a parent who wants to send my daughter to school without fear. I am a professor who wants to go to work without fear. I am a citizen who wants to travel in this vast glorious land without fear—it’s summer break, after all, and I’ve got travel plans.

And I’ve got some ideas too (did I mention that I was a professor?), about what needs to happen in order to shift our culture away from fear and towards care. Many folks are clamoring for change by putting pressure on the politicos of the day and this does need to happen. But that’s not all that needs to happen, in order for our culture to shift closer to that safe-haven ideal we Americans are promised in our constitution: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and all that.

Rather, I am joining the ranks of another set of change agents clamoring for a different kind of Alice unicorn lionreform: reform in education and child rearing, where emotional intelligence is valued just as much as scholastic intelligence. (e.g., see Mark Manson’s post “How we all miss the point on school shootings”).

Emotional Intelligence goes by many monikers: “soft skills,” and “non-cognitive skills” have gotten some attention of late. The concept itself encompasses an array of psychological abilities including emotion regulation (i.e., controlling yourself) and importantly perspective taking & empathy (i.e., “feeling someone else’s pain). Emotion regulation, perspective taking, and empathy are learned skills that develop gradually throughout childhood.

TennieldumdeeDeliberate and masterful interleaving of nature and nurture yields emotional intelligence. It’s not something you have or don’t have – it’s something you learn (or don’t learn). Whereas neurological development constrains progress at certain developmental time points, socialization practices are the key to promoting growth in emotional intelligence.

And promoting EQ is something that’s actually pretty easy to do! Easy, that is, if you know how. Because EQ isn’t just one thing, there isn’t just one way to promote it. Rather, an astute teacher (or parent, caregiver, babysitter, big sibling – you name it! Many folks are socializing agents who can make a difference in a child’s life!) who pays attention to the elements of the EQ-equation will ultimately help boost EQ-positive behaviors. Here are some examples of things you can do to help youth right away:

  1. Boost “working memory capacity”
  • Play Simon Says or other “rule switching” games that require youth to keep multiple rules and behaviors in mind at once
  • Play “what’s in Johnny’s Pocket” or “I’m Going to Paris”- games that challenge you to keep a large set of information in mind and available for consideration
  • Challenge digit-span by memorizing more and more of “pi”

2. Boost emotional vocabulary & scripting

  • Increase youths’ vocabulary for emotional experiences and other internal states
  • Help youth (in age-appropriate ways) to match appropriate emotional reactions to situations
  • People watch and guess at other’s emotions, stating why you guess what you did
  • Play “guess my emotion” by making faces and asking youth in your charge to guess what it is.

3. Encourage emotional self-awareness

  • At various times throughout the day, ask the youth in your charge to pause, state how they feel, and comment on why
  • Encourage age-appropriate journaling at the end of each day
  • Engage in “gratitude” discussions, focusing on the positive.
  • Help youth think of ways to change their emotions when they are feeling a negative emotion
  • Help youth think of ways to moderate their emotions when they are elated but need to control themselves

4. Encourage social awareness

  • Challenge youth in your charge to think about how their actions can make others feel happy, sad, excited, and so on

5. Give kids time to play with other kids

  • I’ve written extensively about the value of play, for more, see here, here, and here.Alice and the dodoKids of any age will benefit from attention to these 5 elements of EQ. Heck, many adults will too! As I deliberately think about how to nurture my daughter’s growth, I can’t help but reflect on my own behavior as I do so. Teaching is like that: we learn from teaching too. You don’t have to do all of this every day. But if you make doing some of this a regular part of your interactions with youth in your charge, in time you will see growth. And on that note, indulge me for a moment, and just imagine a culture where EQ were valued equally alongside IQ. A cultural shift away from fear and towards care would surely happen. It doesn’t take a political landslide to get this started though – it can start in your home, today. What do you say? Are you with me?


  1. I am with you! This is why I am such a fan of the humanities is that I believe they teach MANY things but one of the most important is empathy. Reading and experiencing other people’s emotions and thoughts makes people more prone to empathize with them. I LOVE all of your techniques to develop EQ. I cannot even imagine how much of a better place the world would be if people were better at this. Great post.

    • Yes, absolutely about the humanities. So much is to be gained from stories, literature, and writing. I am delighted with your reaction to my suggestions too – I do many of these things with my daughter (7-years) and her friends, and they love it – it’s fun. The emotion-guessing-game is really fun, as is “I’m going to Paris.” Thanks for taking the time to share your comments!

  2. I have a question about the definition and application of empathy. I thought sympathy was the one that registers others emotions…sympathy relate to another because perhaps I have had similar feelings. As I have learned through nonviolent communications…Empathy is actually more powerful….because I take me and my experiences out of it entirely. I am just pure presence witnessing anothers experience. No judgment…no shame no celebration or even mutuality. Just divine presence coming through me. A holding space for the divine to hold the person…not me.

    Am I hung up on symantics? Surely when I give empathy…there is always a part of me that does sympathize and knows intimately what the person is going through…because I too….have had that feeling. Any way….I also see the danger in getting to caught up in the energy….and bonding to it.

    Feels more pure and aligned for both me, the coach, or friend or parent…and the client or other person, child etc…….for me to stand in my own alignment allowing presence ( god essence ) to deliver the sounding board/space for the other person. To be the witness of another persons experience with out judgement. To celebrate their beingness. Not hugging…warming and soothing……….necessarily……unless needed and wanted.

    Would love to hear your ideas on this. And YES….I am on board. Thank you for your great article.

    • Hi Sally,
      Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to share your thoughts. I am happy to answer your questions and am delighted that you are on board!

      Semantically, sympathy is the ability to recognize others’ emotions for what they are, whereas empathy has an added layer of perspective taking, where you not only recognize the emotion, but you feel it too. That’s why feelings of empathy are more powerful motivators — BECAUSE you feel, not because you don’t. When interacting peer-to-peer, which is the interplay I had in mind when writing this post a little over a year ago, the personal “standing in someone else’s shoes” feelings are necessary motivators: when you feel someone else’s discomfort, you are motivated to relieve that discomfort because it benefits both you and the other person. Further, in order to reasonably resolve the conflict, both partners do need to be able to acknowledge the other’s side and empathy enables such acknowledgement. Doing so requires the ability to keep a lot in mind at once: your personal feelings, your partner’s feelings, and some third “reaction” or the goal state for the resolution. That’s what the exercises I suggest above will enable, eventually.

      However, when you are in a different role, say as a counselor or mediator, where you are helping others resolve their disagreements as an outside party, then you do want to avoid too much personal involvement because that can derail your ability to objectively support conflict resolution. But at the same time, you also need to be able to coach or support the others in seeing each others’ side, so that both have buy-in for the resolution. Otherwise, all that’s happening is “taking sides,” which is usually counter to the aims of conflict resolution. On that note, you are correct in stating that operating as a non-judgmental sounding board for them is key too. You always want your clients (or peers, or family members) to feel supported and no judged when you are helping resolve conflict.

      Hope this helps clarify my perspective for you.

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