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The blog this week is by guest Annette K. Lynch, former senior manager of coaching excellence and sport education with Special Olympics North America, and coach in junior high, high school, NCAA Division II and Division I plus Special Olympics.

When asked to write this blog on empathy, I began thinking about what empathy truly is, what it means to me as a coach and a person, how it relates to confidence and how to teach this life skill.

According to Brené Brown, Ph.D researcher at the University of Houston, “Empathy is feeling with people.” As a coach or a parent, I have always believed that empathy was essential in effectively being with people, which assisted them in playing or in being at their highest level. When I interacted with my players, I witnessed when they were empathetic with one or more of their teammates and when teammates may have needed to have someone show empathy toward them, but did not.

For example, when I coached at Northwestern, one of my players was extremely high in empathy. She led by example on and off the court. Her demeanor was even keel, and she was well respected by her teammates because at some point in the season, she got around to everyone on the team and empathized with them when they needed it the most. The result was that players improved their well being, and their confidence increased.

Some of the most amazing empathy that I have ever witnessed came from my Special Olympics athletes. They were naturally upfront and authentic with their teammates. Many of them played basketball because their friends did, not always because they loved the sport. You could see that they genuinely cared about their teammates, knew when something was bothering them, “picked them up” and helped them move forward, arm in arm, as well as celebrated each other’s accomplishments. It didn’t matter which team scored, they all were giving each other high five’s.

Looking through another’s eyes

Empathy is looking through the others’ eyes and walking in their shoes without being them … and as a colleague has added, “without staying in the others’ shoes for too long.” All of our feelings are survival mechanisms. Empathy is like lifeblood because it gives us vitality … and confidence.“ When I empathized with a player because I cared about her – spent time one-on-one – I came to know what and how she was feeling as she did. The result was a rush of hopefulness and energy in both of us.

After all, a basic everyday, all day, human need is to be seen, heard and recognized for who we are, not for how someone would like us to be, not for how someone is trying to get us to be, but for who we are inside: our feelings, thoughts, desires, and dreams.” − Jane Bolton, Psy.D., in Raise Self Esteem with the Lifeblood of Empathy

There is a basic need to feel connected to each other – to belong. However, the goal of empathy is not trying to “fix” others, but being genuinely present with them, in looking through their eyes and in actively listening so they hear where they are and are able to help themselves.

Real life examples

Here are two examples of empathy. The conversation begins with the daughter, “ Mom, I feel terrible. I have not been invited to Jenny’s birthday party. Jenny, now has a new friend, and I feel left out.” Her mother may respond, “Jill, I understand how you must feel. It must hurt a lot to see Jenny being a friend with someone else, and it hurts more because it feels like you are no longer her friend.” The parent then waits to hear what her daughter says next and doesn’t try to fix it. She allows Jenny to talk further and asks her what she would like to do. Jill is able to talk through her feelings and decide what she would like to do.

Empathy, not to be confused with sympathy

One can be happy for another when things are going well. For example, John has just made the soccer team, but his best friend Ray did not. Even though Ray has not made the team, he can still celebrate John’s accomplishment. “John, I am really happy for you.” John can say to Ray, “Thank you, Ray; that means a lot. I know how much you wanted to make the team, too.” In essence, sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters, while empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another … just as Ray and John have done.

Empathy is not abandoning another.

Imagine what it would be like for children to understand the importance of feeling connected to others, of looking through their eyes, of seeing people as people, and of empathizing with them? When one is genuine, takes the necessary time with another and is in the moment, the result is that both are better for it. They work together so much better, and when they disagree; they find a way to work it out without abandoning each other. A positive energy is created, and confidence is increased.

How can we teach empathy to our children as well as the next generation? Here are some practical scenarios that will help your children or your players learn what empathy is and how to provide it.

  1. People Watching People

Part one: for younger children ages 5-8

Divide the class into two groups. One group will pick an emotion and then walk across the floor while the other group tries to guess what emotion the walking group was conveying based on their body language.

Part two: for children 9-14

Choose a partner and discuss the feeling they were attempting to display. What was seen was the particular feeling that was perceived. Whether or not the feeling was accurately guessed is not as important as what the individual thought was being conveyed. They need to talk it through so that the one who is empathizing better understands what the other is feeling.

  1. Create a collage of pictures of people’s faces: for children 15 and older

Choose a partner. One of the pairs chooses a picture that represents how he or she is feeling. The other senses or guesses what that feeling is, and they talk about it. They need to talk it through so that the one who is empathizing understands what the other is feeling. The other then chooses a different picture, which the partner guesses what that person is feeling. Again, they need to talk it through so that the one who is empathizing understands what the other is feeling.

  1. For parents, go to the shopping mall, sit with your child and watch people walking by.

What feelings does your child notice in the individuals passing by? What are their expressions; what about their body language; how fast or slow are they walking; etc.? The child talk about what was seen or perceived and why what was seen reminded them of particular feelings.

Imagine if everyone would take the time to look in another’s eyes and be genuinely present with another, what a more positive world this would be. What will you do to further develop your empathy life skill as well as enable the development of empathy in your children or players?

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