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In order to Receive Empathy, we must first Teach it - Part 2

Following on from my previous post on teaching empathy, my wife had taught me to help, without being asked when a person with a pram obviously needed help. I was able to generalise this to helping people who clearly need help in all kinds of situations.  

It took me years but I consider myself mostly reformed in that area now and I'll help people who stumble, who get wheelchairs stuck or who can't reach items on the top shelf of the supermarket. All without being asked.  I've even reached the point where I can anticipate a problem and will watch an unsteady person, or a toddler near a road in case they suddenly need intervention. 

My wife did a very good job of reforming me in that regard.

Unfortunately, even though I widened the scope of the "help" intervention considerably, it doesn't automatically put me into a good empathetic state. There are still so many situations to learn about and each time I manage to choose the wrong option. It's simply because I haven't learned to deal with these different situations and I need to be taught.

Being There
My next really big lesson on empathetic reactions came with the birth of our first child.  I'd done my bit of the work (impregnation) and I thought I was doing pretty well by attending birth classes and reading books.  It was certainly more than most of the men in my life had done.  I left the obstetrician appointments apart from a couple to my wife becauase I thought there wasn't a whole lot I could contribute.

I'm also a bit of a workaholic and truth be told, I'm generally too scared to ask for any time off.  At the time I'd only just started a new job too.

The birth of our first child ended up being a very traumatic event in which nearly everything went wrong. It wasn't helped by the fact that I didn't have a good rapport with the obstetrician or that the right questions hadn't been asked in the visits because my wife was too emotional at the time and her "rock" was at work instead of by her side where he needed to be.

Things improved significantly when it came to our second child and I made pretty much every appointment (though usually only by minutes).  We also changed obstetricians as we pretty much realised that our first one was not right for us.

How is this empathy?
Empathy has many meanings, all of which are valid and none of which are comprehensive enough to properly cover this elusive topic.  In order to show empathy, one must interpret a person's actions and infer their emotional state, identify any needs (such as my wife being emotional and needing a person to be there to listen and ask questions) and then act upon those needs - actually be there.

It's a complex set of tasks.

This is a difficult one to generalise but essentially the rule is that if your partner, friend or family needs you to be somewhere for them, then the correct empathetic response is for you to be there.  Work is secondary.

I know that we all have to earn a livelihood and I know that some employers are less tolerant than others but as employees, we have certain rights and those rights are there to allow us to provide support in times of need.

This brings me neatly to the reason I started these posts in the first place (see my introductory post). We had a sudden very urgent need for child-minding and my own family gave me excuses.  It's a let-down which we still haven't recovered from but I do understand.  Sometimes when we're put on the spot, we make the wrong choices.

It was this wrong choice which got me thinking about how I learned the correct empathetic responses and who I learned them from.  It helped me to understand that empathy is not something we're born with, it's something we've been taught.

Anticipating and Reacting
The clue that you've not been empathetic when you should have been usually comes in the form of an extreme emotional reaction from the other person.  If you get this reaction, then you should probably spend some time thinking about what the other person expected/needed and why what you gave them did not address those needs. This is the crux of empathy.

When you've figured out what needs to be done, then you should try to re-establish contact with the person (if it's a family member or friend) and offer what is needed.  Don't make excuses, just offer what is needed.

Remember, as a parent, it's your duty to teach your children to empathise and the best way to do this is by example.


Malena said…
Hi Gavin,
I'm a long-term lurker on your blog, and a pre-service teacher who has worked tutoring social skills.
I've done a bit of work over the past few years on 'teaching' empathy in and out of schools, and I agree - for most people, empathy seems to be taught - either through modelling (when we notice how parents react) or through rigorous explicit teaching (it's very interesting watching how parents do this: commonly when I see parents with toddlers at playgrounds, I hear statements like, "When you pushed him over, you made him SAD! LOOK, he's crying! Go on, give him a hug!").

I have an unrelated request to make of you, feel free to turn me down if you haven't the time :)
As I said, I'm a pre-service teacher. This week I'm rewriting a Unit of Work on 'Success' for students who have ASDs, (particularly Asperger's).

I want to enable my students to realise that they are capable young people, and that they are not alone.

To that end I'd love to include a little information from you and other bloggers/tweeters who are on the spectrum.

If you have a chance this week, would you mind answering this question (and/or passing it on to others)? I'd love to know, "Do you remember anything that you did as a teenager that helped you feel successful (at work, at school, at home, with friends)?"
I've posted the link to the blog as my URL -- I'm also on twitter.

I'll happily anonymise or attribute responses per contributor's request.

(I hope this isn't an invasive or upsetting request for anyone - please advise me if so and I'll remove it.)

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