Empathy and Emotion as Seen Through the Eyes of Children

The preparation for today's speaking event at #dareconfUSA spanned more than 12 weeks. We developed the talks as a team — Meredith Noble, Sharon Bautista, Hannah du Plessis, and Jonathan Kahn and I — we each worked to find our voice.

What I mean when I think about finding your voice is working in a way that is true to who you are. Work is an expression of self, and if it is not true to it, there is no joy in the doing. Finding the child in you, letting curiosity guide you in solving problems, and tapping into love are all good side effects of this process. 

Successful collaborations and experiences are created by design, and call for empathy. A definition of empathy is “experiencing emotions that match another person’s emotions.” Or as we would say to put yourself in their shoes. It's a valid exercise beyond research and helpful when we apply the same level of thoughtful listening to ourselves.

Filmmakers Julie Bayer Salzman & Josh Salzman (Wavecrest Films) set out to communicate visually how a group of children deal with emotions so we can learn from them. [Via Empathy is Everything, a Whitney Hess project]

They say:

The inspiration for “Just Breathe” first came about a little over a year ago when I overheard my then 5-year-old son talking with his friend about how emotions affect different regions of the brain, and how to calm down by taking deep breaths — all things they were beginning to learn in Kindergarten at their new school, Citizens of the World Charter School, in Mar Vista, CA. I was surprised and overjoyed to witness first-hand just how significant social-emotional learning in an elementary school curriculum was on these young minds. The following year, I decided to take a 6-week online course on Mindfulness through Mindful Schools, figuring that if my son was learning about this, it only made sense that I should learn too. Within the first week, I felt the positive effects of this practice take root not only on my own being but in my relationships with others.

[…] We made “Just Breathe” with our son, his classmates and their family members one Saturday afternoon. The film is entirely unscripted – what the kids say is based purely on their own neuro-scientific understanding of difficult emotions, and how they cope through breathing and meditation. They, in turn, are teaching us all …

Michael Sahota lists the four elements of empathy as defined by Theresa Wiseman and depicted in the image above. They are (lightly edited):

  1. See their World – to be able to see the world as others see it. This means you cognitively understand what they are saying and can see it from their point of view.

  2. Appreciate them as Human Beings / No-Judgement – restated the original “non-judgmental” in the the positive so it provides an actionable checklist. Judgement is another trap. We go into judgement to discount the person's situation to avoid experiencing their pain. For us to express empathy, we need to see the person as a human being – someone who is valuable in their own right. This can be very difficult to overcome. 

  3. Understand Feelings – to understand another person’s feelings. We need to get in touch with our emotions in order to truly connect with another person’s feelings. There is a lot of brain research on mirror neurons and how we are neurologically wired to relate to other human beings. A common reason to skip this element of empathy is that we don’t have our own emotions sorted out. So, you may need to do some of your own mental housekeeping in order to be in a place where you can acknowledge other peoples feelings.

  4. Communicate Understanding – to communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings. The final element is that someone feels like they are understood – that they are seen and heard. A great phrase from Brene Brown to use as a starting point: “It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”

Most of us struggle with the communication part. Listening is a big chunk of what communication is about and a good place to start. We gravitate toward great listeners, they make us feel valued.