Empathy Building in the Classroom: Strategies for Cultivating Authentic Connection

Jennifer D. Klein
“Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.”  --Pema Chödrön

Brené Brown’s recent research on emotions, in her book and HBO series Atlas of the Heart, offers an interesting new perspective for educators about the work of building empathy for others’ experiences, which is a key facet in Project-Based Learning, Design Thinking, and Global and Intercultural Competency. I’ve always believed in empathy as an essential goal of education, but I’ve long sensed that the way we foster it in the classroom can cause more harm than good. I’ve seen far too many misguided attempts to build an understanding of others’ experiences by placing students in the imaginary shoes of others, often with little or no recognition of how impossible—and even inappropriate—such strategies might be. I’m infuriated by projects where students pretend to live the lives of Holocaust survivors, people experiencing hunger, or people experiencing significant marginalization, to name just a few. It’s not that I don’t think students should learn to empathize with these experiences—I do—but I believe that the “imagine you’re in their shoes” approach only leads to stereotyping and assumptions, not a true understanding of another person or community’s experience. How much did my students learn, the one time I tried a 24-hour fast to understand hunger in connection to Richard Wright’s Black Boy at the start of my career as a literature teacher? Not much at all, I suspect, since my students had food available in the cupboard the entire time. If we want to build a deep understanding of each other’s lives, I believe we need to shift how we think about empathy work in the classroom.

According to Brené Brown’s work, it is actually impossible to walk in someone else’s shoes. While the metaphor is powerful, and it appears in cultures around the world, Brown’s research demonstrates that humans can, on average, recognize only three core emotions in themselves, much less in others: sadness, happiness, and anger. As Brown mapped out the 87 emotions her research unearthed, something became painfully clear: we are not capable of accurately recognizing and naming deep and complex emotions in ourselves or others. What we see manifested in behavior generally has thousands of potential interpretations, and our personal experiences and biases impact those interpretations. To illustrate her point, Brown tells us, “I have taught race, class and gender, and studied it, for 25 years. [But] I can’t walk in the shoes of someone who doesn’t have my privilege around my education, around my race, around the resources I have access to—and to do it ends up causing people pain.” When we think we know what another person is feeling, particularly based on their behavior, we have made myriad assumptions that may or may not accurately reflect the other’s experience. How would a white woman with privilege even begin to walk in the shoes of a black single mother? Brown asks. In truth, she simply can’t—and pretending she can would be disingenuous and harmful.

And yet, we do this all the time in school. We ask students to empathize with a perspective or person beyond their lives, to try to understand what it feels like to be oppressed, poor, marginalized, or disenfranchised. In Project-Based Learning, we may even try to solve the challenges behind such oppression, poverty, marginalization or disenfranchisement without ever speaking to someone who is experiencing it. Unless classroom educators understand how to build true empathy, this kind of problem solving can actually create more disenfranchisement, even dehumanizing those we are trying to help, because it suggests there is no need to hear the voices of those living the challenge we’re solving.

Instead, Brown suggests that empathy is not about walking in someone else’s shoes, but rather “Tell me the story of your trip in your shoes, and I will believe you and stay curious and listen.” Calling compassion “The daily practice of recognizing and accepting our shared humanity so that we treat ourselves and others with loving-kindness, and we take action in the face of suffering,” Brown describes empathy as a “skill set of compassion… an emotional skill that allows us to understand what someone is experiencing and to reflect back that understanding.” Brown asserts that the key is to stay curious, to listen to others’ stories, and to believe what they tell us about their lived experience.

Empathy Mapping Template

Staying Curious:

From an educational perspective, I would define staying curious as the ability to develop and maintain our wonder and interest in gaining deeper understanding, particularly when we encounter people who think or live differently than we do. I used to tell my students that I hoped they would go through life eternally curious about other people’s experiences, not disinterested, defensive, or too scared to ask. Staying curious is, in a classroom setting, largely about fostering students’ ability to ask good questions. I hate to use a qualifier like “good,” as there is no such thing as a bad question in the classroom. But there are questions that elicit people’s deeper stories, and others that do not. The more open-ended the question, the better—and students need to learn how to ask questions that elicit more than a yes or no response, as it rarely becomes an ingrained mindset without practice. Strategies like the Question Formulation Technique can help learners of all ages develop an understanding of the difference between open- and closed-ended questions, and the more they use the QFT, the more students gravitate naturally toward questions that elicit deeper responses.

I’ve also found that good questions honor the speaker and make no judgements about the potential answer, as they include no assumptions about the other person’s experience. Instead of a leading question like “It must have been hard to be a refugee, no?” which is barely even a question, “What has your experience as a refugee been like?” eliminates the assumption and simply asks for the refugee’s story. Similarly, asking someone “Where are you from?” at least in the United States, is a question rife with assumptions—and if you’ve ever had someone respond angrily with “Cleveland!" it’s because it’s not the right question. Instead, “Would you tell me about your heritage or origins?” tends to lead to wonderful stories. The “perpetual foreigner” perceptions that elicit “Where are you from?” questions are particularly challenging within Asian American communities, who are often perceived to be recent immigrants even if their families have lived outside of Asia for generations. I remember asking an Asian-American woman on a Fulbright program in Japan about her ethnic heritage, and her teary hug as she thanked me for asking the right question. She was from Buffalo, New York, but my right question meant I got to hear the story of her mother escaping Vietnam during the war, pregnant with her, and then birthing and raising her in the United States.  

Asking the right question has allowed me to hear the life stories of people around the globe, and doing so has enriched my life and worldview significantly. Empathy interviews start from these kinds of open-ended, curiosity-based questions, allowing students to engage with others in a way that elicits their stories without assumptions, and with a willingness to honor their experiences.

Formato para Mapear Empatía

Listening to the Answer:

Listening is something I fear most humans have lost our talent for, as our ego so often drives us to listen only for the break in someone else’s story so we can jump in and share our own. I remember reading years ago about how students barely listen to each other during sequential/circular discussions, for example, because they become obsessed with planning what their own contribution will be. What might it look like to listen without judgement, to gather perspectives and experiences without letting our own lens get in the way? The Four Domains of Global Competency developed by the Asia Society in 2005 identifies “Recognizing Perspectives” as a central facet of global competency, and they define it as a process in which students do the following:

1. Recognize and express their own perspective and identify influences on that perspective.

2. Examine others’ perspectives and identify what influenced them.

3. Explain the impact of cultural interactions.

4. Articulate how differential access to knowledge, technology, and resources affects quality of life and perspectives.

There are myriad strategies for active listening, most of which are excellent; the only one I struggle with is the idea of mirroring back someone else’s story, a strategy in which we listen and then retell the other person’s story in our own words. This feels dangerously close to pretending we understand and have the right to tell their experience for them, and I’ve seen many story exchanges where a participant who doesn’t care about the exercise deeply wounds the integrity of someone else’s story by retelling it in a pithy or incomplete way. So while I like the intention behind the mirroring or retelling strategy, I’m not convinced it always builds empathy.

Instead, I like Brené Brown’s ideas about practicing what she calls “story stewardship” as a way to frame what deep active listening might contain. Describing story stewardship as “…listening in a way that builds narrative trust,” Brown says, “The more you tell me your story, and the more I respond, the more you trust me with the narrative.” The opposite of story stewardship is narrative takeover, in which the listener controls and reinterprets the story from their own perspective—this leads to disconnection and can even dehumanize the very person we were striving to understand.

I love the idea of building educational experiences that develop students’ ability to practice story stewardship—not just performing connection but building a true sense of responsibility to the integrity of the story and its teller. In my opinion, a shift in this direction wouldn’t just make our empathy interviews more effective inside schools, but might help us build more meaningful connections in the world beyond its walls.

Believing the Answer:

This may be the hardest part of empathy building, particularly in parts of the world where dismissing and devaluing others’ experiences and perspectives has become so commonplace. Brown describes belief in other’s stories this way: “We believe them when they tell us what their experience in their shoes felt like. And we believe them [even] when that does not reconcile with our own experience.” But she also notes that doing so is not the norm, particularly in parts of the world where division dominates our attempts at discourse. When what we are invested in as a group or individual is threatened by someone else’s truth, believing their experience becomes incredibly challenging.

I’ve seen many students from privileged backgrounds struggle to understand—or believe—that social structures keep some people in situations of marginalization, simply because it is uncomfortable to accept. I’ve watched Jewish students struggle with the oppression of Palestinians, where the desire to reject the Palestinian experience comes from a very deep emotional need to feel that the narrative Jews grew up with is the only truth. And I remember an Israeli woman speaking to students once of the psychological trauma of realizing that her own privileges came at the expense of another group of people. It’s not easy to believe someone else’s truth when it makes you feel uncomfortable about your own.

Brown describes believing others as a practice, meaning it is a skill that will require diligence and patience to achieve. In the classroom, practicing belief might include journal entries or class discussions where students are asked to allow themselves to embrace and reflect on the experience of others, and to lean into the discomfort it causes to honor someone else’s truth, rather than rejecting that discomfort as we more often do. When I was involved in bringing Palestinian voices into North American classrooms with the Research Journalism Initiative, which I wrote about in The Global Education Guidebook, my partners and I found that it was easier for students to accept truths that conflicted with their own experiences when they explored poetry and photography by Palestinian youth. Something about artistic representation resonated for students; it allowed them entry into real, lived experience in ways they couldn’t argue with—and perhaps it touched their hearts in ways that political discourse simply can’t. When I started suggesting that teachers have their students write poetry in response to the photos and poems they explored, amazing things happened—rather than pretending they had lived the same experience or could walk in another’s shoes, students took the time to reflect on the experiences of others without defensiveness. As a result, they began to walk alongside their Palestinian partners with a depth of understanding and belief I couldn’t have predicted—and which we could never have achieved by pretending we were living in occupied Palestine when we were actually sitting in a classroom outside Denver.

I believe firmly that building empathy in the classroom matters. But I don’t think it happens through pretending to know the experience of others; it happens only through the practice of staying curious and asking questions, listening to the answers, and believing others even when their truth doesn’t reconcile with our own—or even threatens it. Empathy interviews, journaling and poetry writing are just a few of the strategies I used as an English teacher; whatever approach teachers use, I suggest two things: first, that we not play games of pretend that diminish the experiences of others; and second, that we make the time to dig deep into understanding others' real, lived experiences.

And what might this mean in terms of the empathy teachers need to have with the experiences of their students, both in and out of school? Empathy and understanding for what our students bring into the learning ecosystem is the heart of the first element of The Landscape Model of Learning, a new approach to student-centered education that Kapono Ciotti and I published in July 2022. We believe that, just like students’ perspectives and approaches to learning are enriched by understanding the experiences of others, educators can better meet students where they are and build rich, meaningful learning experiences when we understand the identities, strengths and needs they bring into the schoolhouse each day. That understanding can’t be built through assumptions because our own biases, whether implicit or explicit, will almost always lead us astray; understanding has to be built by staying curious, listening to our students, and believing them. The more fully we understand where students are on the learning landscape, the more equitably we can partner with students to define their aspirations and identify the best personal pathways through learning.

Even if empathy doesn’t appear as an academic goal in your school, our world needs it more than anything else we teach right now, in what Margaret J. Wheatley describes as a "time of profound disruption." In Brown’s words, real empathy looks a bit like this: “Your pain is my pain; when you’re free, I’m free. Until then, we’re not. And when you hurt, I hurt, and I get it. And I don’t get it because I’ve experienced it—I get it because I’m listening to you, and I believe we are all capable of hurting and being hurt.” I believe that thinking this way, and teaching students the practice of understanding others, is not just a soft skill or nice extra when we can make the time. Instead, empathy building is an essential practice that allows us to cultivate connection and recognize our interdependence so we can accompany each other through life in this challenging, often divisive, ever-changing world.


Note: All quotations come from Brené Brown’s HBO series, Atlas of the Heart.

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