We hear the word empathy used a lot these days. We’re told it can make us better dads, better husbands and better leaders.
Barack Obama, a vocal advocate for empathy, has even suggested the big E could be the secret ingredient for world peace.
With such high expectations for empathy, I thought it was worth exploring a little further. And to see what we can do as dads to help develop this skill in ourselves and our children
What is empathy?
Empathy is sometimes confused with sympathy, but they are not the same thing. Sympathy is merely the act of showing concern for someone else’s situation (e.g. sending them flowers when their pet dies).
But empathy is much stronger than this. It requires a deeper understanding of the other person’s thoughts and feelings.
The oxford dictionary defines empathy as ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.’
You can also think of it as ‘perspective-taking’, or as Obama put it: “learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes.”
However, it’s not quite that simple…..
So let’s take a closer look at each one.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to recognise what another person is feeling and understand their perspective.
It’s a great skill to have in almost all social situations, but particularly at work where it helps with negotiating, managing and motivating other people.
But cognitive empathy by itself is not enough. And if you only display cognitive empathy, you may risk coming across as cold or uncaring.
Psychopaths and con artists, for instance, often have great cognitive empathy. It’s what allows them to read and manipulate other people’s emotions. Of course, what they lack is the ability to feel the other person’s pain or show any compassion for their feelings. And this is where the next two types of empathy come in.
Emotional Empathy is the ability to feel what someone else is feeling.
It can be an important skill to have, especially for intimate relationships, as it helps build a much stronger emotional connection.
But Emotional Empathy can have a downside too. Particularly if you have trouble managing your emotions.
People with strong emotional empathy can sometimes become overwhelmed because they emotionally take on the suffering of others. They can even experience the same physical responses to the emotion, such as stress.
This is why doctors, nurses and police officers learn to detach themselves from their emotional empathy to do their jobs.
But whilst too much emotional empathy can be a problem in certain situations, at home, with your partner and your kids, it’s a very useful skill to develop.
And let’s be honest, most of us are probably not at risk of having too much emotional empathy.
In fact, you may even be wondering if you have ever experienced emotional empathy?
The answer is almost certainly yes. Here’s one way of knowing.
The yawn test
You might have heard the myth that psychopaths don’t catch a yawn. Well, there is some truth to this.
For most of us, seeing someone else yawn is highly contagious as it triggers the physical and emotional sensation of tiredness in ourselves.
A psychopath, on the other hand, sees someone yawn, can recognise that the other person is tired, but is less likely to feel tiredness themselves.
So, if you’ve ever found yourself yawning in response to someone else yawning, then rest assured you are capable of Emotional Empathy.
And if not – then maybe keep that little secret to yourself!
Compassionate Empathy (sometimes referred to as empathic concern) is the ability to sense what another person needs from you and to have the desire to help that person.
“With this kind of empathy, we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed.”Daniel Goldman
In some ways, compassionate empathy provides the perfect balance between cognitive and emotional empathy. It gives you an understanding of the other person’s emotional needs and the motivation to help them. This combined with emotional intelligence provides the ability to respond appropriately. However, you are not emotionally taking on the other person’s suffering, meaning you can stay calm and not experience the same stress response in yourself.
In most day-to-day situations compassionate empathy is probably the most important of the three. So if you are going to focus anywhere, then this is a good place to start.
And the good news (even for psychopaths) is that anyone who has cognitive empathy should be capable of compassionate empathy, even if they aren’t capable of emotional empathy.
“We must have cognitive empathy, in order to achieve either of the other forms of empathy, but we need not have emotional empathy in order to have compassionate empathy. “Paul Eckman
Why is Empathy Important for dads?
Empathy can help us be more successful in many areas of life including work and social situations. However, the place where we gain the greatest benefits from increasing our empathy is at home with our partner and kids.
If you think about your relationship with your partner, the ability to sense what they are feeling and be more in tune with their emotions is a great skill to have.
We know that one of the most common complaints wives have about their husbands is that they don’t listen to them. But when you dig a bit deeper on this, what’s often behind it is a feeling of being misunderstood.
So, developing empathy, along with becoming a better listener, is a great step towards resolving this issue and ultimately building a stronger relationship.
And speaking of common complaints, how often have you heard a child say that their parents just don’t understand them?
This is something that causes distress for kids of all ages. The feeling that their parents just can’t relate to what they are going through.
Developing emotional empathy towards your children is a great way to bridge this gap and start to see and feel things from their viewpoint.
Kids of all ages need empathy
You can show empathy to kids from a very young age. Even a one-week-old baby has emotions. Whilst they can’t understand or articulate them yet, you can still try to put yourself in their little woollen booties and relate to what’s happening from their perspective.
And whilst you may think they are too young to understand, this shouldn’t stop you communicating with them.
For instance, rather than just picking up your baby and plonking it in another room (right when they were in the middle of happily blowing bubbles), why not gently explain what you are about to do and why? This shows respect and empathy for their feelings.
Of course, with older kids, it becomes even more important to empathise.
Think how great it would be if you could truly relate to what your teenage daughter is feeling? Maybe even help her understand her feelings by sensing when something is wrong and raising it with her.
This is where emotional empathy can help. It’s that sixth sense or intuition that some parents seem to develop.
How can dads improve their empathy?
There are whole books written on the topic of empathy, so I won’t attempt to make this an exhaustive list. But to help you get started, here are three cool ideas I’ve come across that can help us develop our empathy.
1. Practice reading and imitating faces
Can you identify the emotions on each of these faces?
Here’s a quick online test you can do to see how well you recognise emotions in other people’s faces. To do it properly, you should go very quickly and only spend about a second on each one. There are 25 in total – see how you go.
Recognising emotions in other people is the first step to being more empathetic, however, it’s mostly a cognitive skill.
What’s interesting is if you emulate these expressions on your face, you can sometimes trigger the same emotion in yourself. This is where it crosses over into emotional empathy.
For instance, try putting a big fake smile on your face right now. Or even put a pen between your teeth to force yourself to smile.
Now, whilst holding that fake smile see if you can be sad…. It’s really hard.
This demonstrates how our physiology is closely linked to our emotions.
Understanding this connection and being able to read and emulate faces and body language is a great way to increase your empathy.
2. Watch TV with the volume down
Now before you say “I do that already”, hold on a minute. I’m not talking about the football game that is playing in the background. That’s usually done for different reasons.
For this technique to be effective, you need to be watching a drama (rather than sport or an action movie). And whilst doing so, you put the volume on mute and see if you can still interpret what each character is feeling and talking about.
Much like the first example, this is another cool way of testing and strengthening your empathy muscle.
3. Read fictional novels
Now, this one actually has some research to support it.
The theory is that by reading fictional novels you are seeing the world through someone else’s eyes and relating to their feelings. And in doing so, developing your empathy.
According to the research, it works best for ‘literary fiction’ as opposed to ‘popular fiction’ (think Jane Austin, not John Grisham). This is because the protagonists in pop fiction tend to be less diverse and you generally get less of an insight into their view of the world.
To get the best effects, you should try to choose books about people who are very different and live in different circumstances from yourself.
Here’s a couple of suggestions:
- The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – an opportunity to see the world through the eyes of a black woman in Botswana.
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – written from the perspective of a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome.
How can we teach our children empathy?
Again there are people far more qualified than me who have PHDs in this area, so I don’t want to claim to be an expert.
If you are interested in reading some science-based tips for teaching children empathy, here’s a much longer list.
But for now, I’ve selected three ideas that I wanted to share. In some cases, they are backed by research, in other cases that just seem to make sense to me.
In a 2006 study, a group of young medical students were required to role-play the experience of being elderly. For example, they wore goggles to simulate cataracts, and heavy rubber gloves to experience a loss of motor control.
After the experiment, when tested, the students displayed much higher levels of empathy towards the elderly then they had prior. The conclusion being that role play is a potential way to help increase empathy towards others.
Seems to make sense to me!
And since role-playing is something kids love to do anyway, why not give it a try?
You can get your kids to pretend they are a kid in Africa, a boy instead of a girl (or vice versa), or an elderly person as per the previous experiment. Anything that gets them seeing life from a different person’s perspective.
Hopefully, this can help develop their empathy. And even if it doesn’t, you’ll be developing their acting skills in the process 🙂
2. Travel to foreign countries or expose kids to foreign-languages
Again, this one seems obvious to me. I know from my own experience that travel has given me a much greater ability to relate to people from different backgrounds and empathise with their situations. So taking your kids to a foreign country should be a way to develop their empathy as well. Just in case you were looking for an excuse to travel 🙂
And when it comes to foreign languages, a study published in Psychological Science, found that bilingual children (and also children who were merely exposed to foreign languages) performed better on tasks that required taking another person’s perspective i.e. empathy.
So even if your kids are not speaking a second language, just having them exposed to a foreign language can potentially increase their empathy.
Much like travelling, doing some volunteer work is a great way to expose your children to people in less fortunate situations. In doing so, you’ll be helping them develop empathy.
This one is cheaper and easier than going on an international holiday and what’s more, you’ll be helping the community in the process.
It seems like a no-brainer to me, so I didn’t bother trying to find any research to support it 🙂
Just get out there and start volunteering with your kids!
Where to learn more
So there you have it. Hopefully, you are now a little wiser on the topic of empathy. I know I am.
We’ve learned that there are three types of empathy (cognitive, emotional and compassionate). And I’ve shown why it’s an important skill for dads to develop.
I’ve also given you three simple ideas to develop empathy in yourselves and your kids.
If you want to learn more, here are some related articles and a free resource I’ve developed that could help improve your empathy.