Empathy is in short supply these days. Here's how to nurture it

In an age of conflict, we need to improve how we interact. Here's how to check whether you're an empathetic communicator

Jo Steer

empathy hands

We’re living through a time of polarisation, contentiousness and extremes: families are divided over Brexit; status updates have overtaken real conversation; and anything that doesn’t fit with our own view is discounted as fake news.

It feels as if conflict, abuse and public shaming are on the rise, while empathy, understanding and forgiveness are in decline.

Quick read: Are we right to welcome artificial intelligence into schools?

Quick listen: Professor Angela Duckworth on character education

Want to know more? An online troll showed me why we should teach kindness

And as we turn to technology as our primary means of communication, keyboard warriors across the land are emboldened to attack.  

Even educators – people who teach the art of debate, tolerance and kindness – are not exempt from this. In her article from February, FE teacher Sarah Simons reported being sworn at, called names, and personally and professionally attacked by teachers online.


Why? Because she wrote a piece that said teachers aren’t the only professionals who are tired.

Is this really where we’re at now? Have we sunk so low?

But empathy is a skill – like reading or writing – that we can practice, develop and master (growth mindset, right?) 

Here’s how we can all go about communicating with greater empathy.

Practise conscious listening

Listening is the vehicle through which we attribute meaning in the people, events and world around us. Yet, often, when others speak, we only half-listen, especially when they’re expressing an opinion different from our own.

We’re too busy seething at what they’ve said or planning a witty retort in our heads, or looking at a screen instead of them.

Sound and communication expert Julian Treasure suggests that we make a real effort to truly listen to what this person has to say: with our ears, eyes and heart.

If the person is someone that you hear from often and the conversation feels like the same old same old, then go a step further and listen as if it’s the first conversation you’ve ever had.

Ask questions

Put aside your thoughts and feelings, as well as your desire to solve the problem, and listen with curiosity, asking questions to further your understanding.

Why do you think that? Why is that important to you? Why are you so focused on this one thing? According to therapist John Gottman, this kind of approach is a key step towards overcoming discussion gridlock.

Let yourself be vulnerable

Researcher Brené Brown reminds us that true empathy requires vulnerability, too. To see things from another person’s point of view, you have to recognise when you may have had similar thoughts, beliefs, emotions and experiences in your own lifetime.

Focus less on what your response is and more on forming a real connection through listening.

T.H.I.N.K. before you speak

Some of the strategies we teach in the classroom are just useful for staff to learn as they are for students (and I’m not excluding myself here).

So to avoid the speaking sins that create distance, opposition and misunderstanding, try to T.H.I.N.K. before you speak (or type).

Ask: Is this true? Is it helpful? Is it inspiring? Is it necessary? Is it kind? And if you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t write it online either.

Remember that we’re all different

When you’re bordering on outrage, remember that all humans are a mish-mash of different values, beliefs and contrasting life experiences.

What seems vital or appalling to you might be utterly meh to someone else. Just because it’s your opinion, doesn’t mean it’s the only one – forgive those who don’t share it.

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Jo Steer

Jo Steer is a former leader now working with schools as a wellbeing consultant

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