Learning Activities to Build Empathy

post-empathySince the days of Socrates, asking the right questions has been a core discipline of the learning experience. Questions can be open-ended or close-ended. Closed-ended questions are usually factual and repeat-after-me type responses, such as: How many steps are in our sales process? What department would respond to an on-site emergency? While these DO help to reinforce information retrieval, they do not foster deeper analytical thinking. Open-ended questions, on the other hand, require individuals to respond using their own thoughts and words and can help to teach thinking by forcing the learner to support a response with reasons.

While open-ended questions move beyond rote responses, they may still be limited in that they only ask the participants for their opinion or perspective. In order to build empathy, we must expand the learner’s ability to process information from many perspectives. One effective approach is to challenge participants to answer questions from a perspective different than their own. Asking the learner to consider two or three additional perspectives is quite mentally challenging and will develop the cognitive skill of empathy.

Here’s what Happens inside the Brain

The area of the brain that adjusts for overly selfish impulses appears to be the right supramarginal gyrus. In times of extreme stress it becomes harder for the brain to exercise control over the overwhelming impulse for self-interest. However, neuroscientists have proven that people can be taught to increase their degree of empathy, even under stress, through practice.

Examples of Questions to Build Empathy:

  • How do you know if the customer is more motivated by a feature or a benefit?
  • When does it make business sense to walk away from a sale?
  • From the catering manager’s perspective – what is the biggest bottleneck?
  • Make a presentation from the perspective of a different discipline (e.g. an accountant would make a presentation from the perspective of an engineer in R+D)

Using Work Experience to Develop Empathy

Another way to accomplish this same type of mental development is to challenge learners to work with a situation that is “similar but different” than their own. For instance, if you are addressing a group of shipping managers, you might challenge them to come up with ways to streamline the packing operation. You might ask a group of doctors to analyze how a hospital intakes and treats patients in a timely way. Being able to recognize the steps, bottlenecks or efficiencies from a perspective that is one or two steps “removed” from the familiar often enables people to empathize with others and apply the lessons learned into their own practice.

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