Boost Your Empathy This Valentine’s Season with 3 Fun Activities
While Valentine’s Day may be more generally associated with romantic love, it can also be a great time to strengthen your empathy and compassion for people in general—and to help your kids do the same!
Since The Hopper is all about fostering meaningful family bonds through exploration and self-discovery, I decided to explore the science of together time.
Empathy, is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” (oxforddictionaries.com). In other words, the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes or walk a mile in their shoes. It’s about being able to set aside one’s own assumptions and worldview in order to better understand someone else’s inner motivations, thoughts, and ways of interacting with their environment. Empathy is a key component of social intelligence and the ability to successfully understand and connect with others. It has also been shown to increase community ties and to reduce conflict and bias (people are less likely to engage in conflict when they better understand the other person’s motivation and feelings)
While being able to completely understand another person’s internal world isn’t possible, there are exercises and tools that can help build and engage empathy. So this Valentine’s holiday season, why not try out one of the exercises below with your kids?
Sensory Empathetic Modelling
In this exercise you will try to carry out a task while experiencing a temporary sensory impairment that may be common to another individual or group. For example, developing empathy for elderly parents/grandparents who may be experiencing diminished abilities by trying to walk in their shoes.
- Carry out an everyday task as you normally would. For example, make a sandwich. Be cognizant of the various steps required, and, if doing the exercise with a child or partner, speak aloud about the process and the ease or difficulty of the various sub-tasks.
- Carry out the same task while implementing one of the following temporary sensory impairments. Again, be cognizant of the process and speak aloud about the experience. What was easier? More difficult? What surprised you?
- Visual impairment: using an inexpensive pair of glasses or sunglasses (paper/plastic ones are perfect), obscure parts of the lenses using milk stains or a bit of Vaseline.
- Reduced dexterity: put on a pair of thick, heavy gloves – ideally in a size too large.
- Arthritis: using a low tack tape (such as scotch tape or masking tape), gently tape coins to the back of your knuckles to limit mobility and create discomfort. For kids, perhaps simply loosely tape the joints without the coins.
- Discuss. What were some of the key differences between how you normally experience the task and how you experienced the task with a simulated impairment? What other types of tasks might also be difficult? For example, if opening a jar of peanut butter was difficult with simulated arthritis, how might it feel to open a smaller container, such as medicine? Or a different type of container, such as an individual yogurt pack? Do you think these are difficulties faced by the elderly people in your life – such as a grandparent? And remember, these exercises are about developing empathy rather than sympathy – understanding how someone might feel rather than simply feeling sorry for them.
Get Curious and Listen
Strike up a conversation with someone different from you. Perhaps a co-worker in a different department you’ve never spoken to before; or the barista at your local coffee joint. Look for individuals with diverse points of view and then seek out any fundamental similarities, instead of differences, in your perspectives. Be sure to actively listen.
Or, learn more about someone you already know using IDEO’s design method ‘5 Whys?’. This exercise is as simple as it sounds, but can be a great way to better understand the underlying beliefs behind someone’s behavior. Simply ask “Why….?” to five consecutive responses. While often used to understand the underlying reason for a problem, it can also be used to kick off a deeper conversation about someone’s underlying views and beliefs and to build empathy and connections.
For children too young to engage in some of the other activities, a fun way to actively build empathy is to create a feelings collage.
- Step 1: Using old magazines, have your kids cut out various pictures of people expressing different emotions. Have them glue the images to a poster board, or large size paper, and label each image with the feeling they think is being shown.
- Step 2: Discuss. Ask your kids to explain the ‘why’ behind the label – such as facial expression, activity, location, body language, etc. For example, what makes you think this man is surprised?
Advancing our empathy skills is crucial to enhance relationships with our families and community at large. For the future generation of problem solvers, empathy is also an important tool that invites collaboration, more insightful interpretations when looking at a scientific challenge, for example, and ultimately allows us to explore more efficient and creative ways to problem-solve together
To learn more about empathy and empathy building activities, check out these resources:
- Stanford’s Design Process for Kids: Teaching Big Picture Problem Solving
- Stanford University d.school Empathy Planner
- 40 Kindness Activities & Empathy Worksheets for Students and Adults
- 5 Activities for Building Empathy in Your Students
- Exercise In Radical Empathy To Minimize Conflict
- Using Virtual Reality to Increase Empathy
- Center for Empathy