The Empathy Switch

Today I'm thinking about empathy. Again.
It's been on my heart and mind since I saw this 
on a plaque in the bathroom at our local McDonald's: 
If this restroom is in need of attention, please flip the switch. 
And sure enough, there it was, the I-need-attention switch.
How cool, I wondered, would it be if people came with a similar switch, one that we could just flip up when we need our attention. Or connection. 
If only it were that easy, right? 
Or is it ...

That's where empathy comes in.
When our empathy is elevated, the person in our midst
doesn't actually need an I-need-attention switch.
We'll know when theirs is on, 
because we're listening to understand and connect.
Either we've been in their shoes ... or we can imagine.
Imagine how they must feel ... and what we would need
were we to switch places with them ... if only for a little bit.

And although levels of intensity vary greatly,
from day to day,
from person to person,
 and from situation to situation, 
feelings are feelings and comfort is comfort.

How do we stretch and nurture empathy in tomorrow's leaders?
1. Listen. Actively listen. Listen to understand, not just reply.
2. Read fiction. Lots of it. Practice switching places with the characters in the story. How would you problem-solve their dilemmas?
3. Role-play as you reflect on what you observed during the day. What happened and what would you have done differently in the situations that you saw?
4. Point out how people are feeling, at the grocery store, in line for the movies, at a sporting event. Ask: Is that a comfortable feeling or an uncomfortable one? 
Is it big or small? Easy or hard?
5. Put empathy in their hands by teaching them the empathy switch.
Pretend the pinky is you and the thumb is me.

Then switch places. Put yourself where I was and me where you were. Keep switching until it's fluid. Think it's easy? Think again!

But it's worth it, to sharpen your empathy switch skills.

Here are some recent resources you might want to check out:

Happy switching.

1 comment

  1. What an awesome analogy! I am definitely going to show my kids the empathy switch! I usually teach empathy with cutting out a paper heart, then crumbling it to show no matter how we try, we can't take away the wrinkles of our unkind words. Your lesson is a perfect midyear reminder!



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