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Developing Empathy in a Crisis: As simple as one, two, three

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Here’s the challenge: With the Coronavirus putting the family in lockdown mode – it’s easy for our kids and us to focus inward toward ourselves – often leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation. This challenge is made worse by living in close and continual proximity with each other – where little issues can blow up into emotional train wrecks. One of the most powerful strategies for combating these feelings is to grow and strengthen our empathy.

In fact, of all the skills we can cultivate in our kids, empathy may be the most important. Psychologist Daniel Goleman brings great insight into this issue. His 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence created the paradigm-shattering idea that IQ was not the key determinant of one’s success in life. At the center of this new enabler – emotional intelligence – is our capacity to put ourselves in others shoes. The recent Black Lives Matter protests, sparking a long overdue discussion on race and inequality in America, will put a premium on our capacity to empathize (no matter our age).

Goleman shares how there are actually three types of empathy. A simple framework is simple and intuitive – and not only can be easily modeled by parents – but can be taught to our children. The three types of empathy are actually best leveraged as a three-step model.

Step One: Think It! (Cognitive Empathy)

Step Two: Feel It! (Emotional Empathy)

Step Three: Act on It! (Compassionate Empathy)

Here’s how it works: You find your teenage daughter has dissolved into tears on her bed. It is impossible to console her. With a little prodding, she finally reveals that her high school graduation has been cancelled due to the Coronavirus. Your first thought is that we can work through this . . . it’s just a ceremony. Under or over-reacting at this point would be a disaster.

Leveraging the three empathies, we work through this: We start with the first step, cognitive empathy, to gain some broader perspective. Sure, we provide immediate comfort and consolation. But at this point we should also get up on the balcony to truly understand what is going on. With further (and painful) discussion we learn that it is not just the cancellation of the ceremony. For your daughter, missing this milestone signals a major interruption in her life as she knew it. No more coffee and shopping with friends. College may be delayed. The post-high school freedom that she dreamed of is now at risk. With this broader perspective , we are ready to leave the balcony and co-suffer with her.

With step two, emotional empathy, we put ourselves in her shoes to fully join her in her pain. We start to fully imagine how it must feel to have your world turned upside down in this way. She senses now that she is not alone and leans into your emotional embrace. This deep sense of connection between the two of you brings some stability to the situation. There are lots of tears but soon you are ready for step three, compassionate empathy, where you are moved to action.

In this final step, we are ready to move forward and to help. We can’t remain stuck in step two – we now desire the psychological grace that comes from moving back into the world. Together with our daughter we start to plan little steps that start the healing. She takes the lead in organizing the Zoom graduation ceremony while you organize the parents in a range of summer support activities. The cycle is now complete:

We think about it – gaining fuller understanding and perspective.

We feel it – bringing both support to the sufferer – and the motivation toward action.

We act on it – we begin to help in the most meaningful ways.

In modeling this three step process, you are also guiding your daughter in helping others in the same way. She can now play out this cycle with her friends – starting with step one. She remembers how you carefully teased out her concerns -- and how it helped her better understand her own grief. She now finds herself carefully listening to her friends and helping them to articulate their pain. Armed with these insights she can fully put herself in their shoes – giving them the sense they are not alone in their suffering. This healing phase of the empathy cycle will naturally lead to the third step of compassionately helping her friends to move forward.

Once we have experienced the logic of the three empathy steps, it starts to shape our broader emotional intelligence. Instead of over-reacting to someone’s pain or trying to solve their problem too soon in the process, we purposely and thoughtfully apply the healing power of empathy.

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