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Empathy has never been more important

By Karyn Santl
Graphic of red heart with arms wrapped around it.

For two months, I have been putting together a webinar for 4-H volunteers about showing empathy and giving feedback. As I put the finishing touches on it, I'm working from home - ordered to do so, like most Americans living through the COVID-19 pandemic.

I am surrounded by family members who are dealing with cancellations, uncertainty and isolation. I am also supporting my colleagues as they adjust to their new work and home situations. The topic of my webinar has become more important than ever.

Dr. Brene` Brown has a great video that explains and shows the difference between empathy and sympathy. In Brown’s work, she references the nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman’s four attributes of empathy:
  • To be able to see the world as others see it. This requires putting your own "stuff" aside to see the situation through someone else’s eyes.
  • To be nonjudgmental. Judgement of another person's situation discounts the experience and is an attempt to protect ourselves from the pain of the situation.
  • To understand another person’s feelings. We have to be in touch with our own feelings in order to understand someone else's. 
  • To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings. Rather than saying, "At least you ... " or "It could be worse ... " try, "I've been there, and that really hurts," or, "It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”

As we work and connect with youth and volunteers in the upcoming months, we need to pause and try to see the world from their perspective and not be judgmental. Everyone has a different home situation and is dealing with their current state differently. Many are working from home (or trying to) and others are still working outside the home - which can only add to their stress. They may be balancing children or elderly parents or worried about finances.

We need to show empathy as volunteers and families make decisions about what is best for them in the weeks ahead. Some may still want to connect and receive resources from out-of-school time programs; others may just want to focus on their immediate needs. As managers of out-of-school time programs, we need to be empathic and listen. In the long run this will create a deeper relationship of trust. The current public health crisis we are in will give us plenty of opportunities to practice giving empathy.

How do you practice empathy?  What attribute do you find the hardest to put into practice?

-- Karyn SantlExtension educator

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  1. A helpful and timely post, Karyn! I think of that quote: "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." In 4-H, we have a lot to offer in terms of high-quality learning experiences, engaging lesson plans and resources, and the ability to quickly morph our face-to-face skills into distance-delivered skills! All GREAT!
    AND...what our families and volunteers are appreciating is that we are reaching out to show caring and empathy, asking how they are doing, asking what they need, helping people stay connected. It's the "person-centered" principle in our First Gen. Lens, and I see and hear us using that during this Stay@HomeMN time! We learn by doing --so my gratitude to everyone in our lives who is learning empathy by doing empathy!

    1. Thank you Anne! Yes, so important to be "person-centered" - to be non-judgmental and put yourself in the other person's shoes.

  2. This is a great follow up to our webinar last week where 60 volunteers joined us in understanding feedback and empathy as SEL skills. The biggest impact Brene Browns video had on me when i first watched it years ago is her description of "silver linings". We typically think of this as a good thing, offering the bright side of a situation. I love how she describes the way it can drive disconnection if we are not careful how we use silver lining thinking. Once we see her example with the Reindeer it is SO much easier to recognize those situations when we use silver lining to move away from an uncomfortable conversation with someone. We gloss over and move on when oftentimes the person just wants someone to listen or to acknowledge that they care. Silver Lining awareness has been a place of growth for me.

    1. Thanks Margo! I also need to work on not stating "silver linings" I always want to think on the "positive" side or learn from the situation. I need to learn to just listen and restate their feelings. And to just be there for the person.

  3. I was able to participate in this webinar as a 4-H volunteer, however also found it helpful in my professional role as a youth development professional The topic was so relevant and really appreciated the video that was shared from Berene' Brown. We really need to be aware of our language and think about providing grace at this time of rapid change. I am finding the flexibiity, patience, and pause have been key words to me during the past three weeks.

  4. Thanks for sharing Nancy! Great words to have in mind - flexibility, patience and pause. For ourselves as well as others in our life.

  5. I was just reading another blog post that discussed "holding space" for someone else. It described what empathy looks like and I had to share it!

    What does it mean to hold space for someone else? It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.

  6. Sometimes silver lining is just what a person is wanting from interaction with us. The key is awareness and to hold space for that person to let us know what is helpful and supportive. Sometimes it is listening, sometimes it is advice, sometimes it is showing the silver lining. We can always ask them "do you want advice, or is it more helpful for me to just listen".

  7. Thanks for your post, Karyn. I've been using the word "pause" often lately. Pausing has helped me to slow down and consider how others are feeling or viewing the world now. I especially appreciate your tip to stop and really listen to the other person.

  8. Hi Becky! The world we are in right now has (hopefully) made us slow down, stop & listen. We really need to be "person centered" with our families and the work we do. We are all experiencing the pandemic together, but coping with it differently because of our circumstances. Stay healthy!


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