Tag Archives: Empathy

Teaching Empathy to Children

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 6.01.41 PMFour year olds Zoe and Ben are playing in the wading pool at the park.

Zoe has a bucket and some colorful cups, which she’s engrossed in filling and pouring. Now and again she looks up to show her mum what fun it is to fill the big pail and then pour the water into the smaller cups so it all spills out. Ben has no toys so he’s making splashes with his hands and feet and full body slams into the water. The mums are chatting.

All is peaceful. Well, as peaceful as a pond full of preschoolers can be.

Suddenly there’s a wail of indignation and the mums look up.

Ben has collected a few of the colorful cups Zoe had floating around her. Zoe goes to grab them from him. As she holds onto one Ben pulls back which unsteadies Zoe and she falls chest-first into the shallow water. She gets up, unhurt but indignant, and goes to reach again for the cup. At this point Ben raises it above his head hoping she can’t reach. Assessing the situation pretty quickly Zoe goes to Plan B, and uses her bucket to bop Ben sharply on the nose. Yup – that works! Ben drops the cup, puts both hands on his face and bursts out crying.

Now the mums are up.

  • What would you do if Ben was your child?
  • What would you do if Zoe was your child?
  • Is there a “right” way of intervening, and if there is, what philosophy of “rightness” is being enforced?

Before I weigh in, here are ways some parents respond:

  • Remove Ben from the pool with harsh words on the “you’re a bad boy” theme, and put him in time out for taking something which is not his;

[What might Ben tell himself when the adults around him only see things from the other kid’s point of view?]

  • Remove Zoe from the pool, maybe with a smack (because she hit someone else and that’s not a nice thing to do) and put her in time out;

[What might Zoe tell herself when the adults around her only see things from the other kid’s point of view?]

  • Smother Ben with hugs and kisses and “oh-diddums-are-you-alright-let-me-see-your-poor-sore- nose-whiles-Mummy-kisses-it”

[What might Ben tell himself when the adults around him only see things from his point of view?]

  • Smother Zoe with righteousness and console her because “that nasty boy had no right to take your stuff and he pushed you first so he had it coming to him anyway…”

[What might Zoe tell herself when the adults around her only see things from her point of view?]

OK – so an empathic teaching moment?

Each adult would go to their child and lead him or her gently out of the water, wrap them in a towel and sit them on their lap. Then (if they’d read this blog first, of course!!) they could work their way through these five steps:

1. Adopt a “Teachable moment” Attitude

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 6.09.14 PMYou need the “Oh good – a teachable moment” attitude. Not the “I can’t believe these kids are so dreadful” attitude. You need the “Messy moments are behavioral rough drafts” attitude. Not the “Bad behavior is caused by bad kids” attitude.

Ben and Zoe have no idea how to navigate the two-kids-wanting-the-same-toy dilemma. Learning how to share stuff is tough and right now you have a chance to be part of this “teachable moment.” So, right then as you intervene, right as you take in that deep breath, invite your inner Mr. Rogers and bring with you compassion, curiosity, a light touch and some creativity.

2. Broaden The Context

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 6.11.57 PMWhether we’re tiny or all-grown-up, it’s tempting to see the world-according-to-me. The first step in helping your child get a bigger picture is to broaden the context. Offer an establishing shot. Pull the focus way back and describe what went down in a non-judging way.

As in, “Boy, I just saw two kids having a tough time. A little girl brought some toys to the pool and the little boy wanted to play with those toys and wasn’t sure how to do that. And both kids got a bit hurt – one falling in the water and one because he got his nose hit. That must have been a tough few minutes for both of them.”

See what this does? Now your child hears a non-blaming description that captures the action of the two protagonists. Already the experience is now in some space beyond the initial small “It’s all about me” frame of reference.

In this case it’s not so hard to present a neutral narrative, and it’s important to not use any negative descriptions like “The bratty girl wouldn’t share!” or “The pushy boy took what he wanted.” Most helpful is to stick with the facts and dump the adjectives.

3 Label Feelings

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 6.17.02 PMIf we want our children to understand how someone else might feel, we have to help them learn how they feel. In fact, studies show that children who are highly empathic are more likely to have been well empathized-with. (Barnett MA. 1987. Empathy and related responses in children. In N Eisenberg and J Strayer (eds): Empathy and its development. New York: Cambridge University Press.)

I’ve written a lot about emotions in this blog.

Type  “Emotions” into the search box, or click parrott-emotions-tree-2001(3) for some Emotions Vocabulary. But in brief, labeling feelings is just that – it’s you giving a vocabulary word to the child’s emotion, again with a non-judgmental or non-directive attitude.

If you’re Ben’s mum you might say “I bet you felt a bit sad that we forgot our toys today Ben. And it looked like you felt frustrated when the little girl wouldn’t let you use one of hers. And then, when she used her bucket to hit your nose I’m guessing you felt shocked and hurt and then a bit mad at her too, eh?”

Same idea for Zoe’s mum – to acknowledge her combination of anger that the boy took her cup; embarrassed when she fell over; frustrated she couldn’t reach the cup; a bit triumphant when she thought of hitting him, and then surprised and upset when the cup hurt him.

Emotions are like the weather: they are best noticed and reported upon without judgment. If it’s cloudy with a chance of meatballs, your grumpiness won’t lessen the meatball mess. If your kid is angry with a hint of jealousy – same difference. Naming these feelings won’t doom your kid to their permanent influence. In fact the opposite is true. Naming them helps your child move through them.

4. Swap Perspectives

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 6.38.04 PMRight here – Step 4 – is the heart of teaching empathy. It’s the big juicy opportunity that the more typical parenting responses miss (like the ones above in red and blue).

The parents who use punishment miss the chance to empathize with their own child. The parents who are overly solicitous miss the chance to empathize with the other child.

So right after you’ve spent time with your own child understanding and labeling what they felt, it’s time to invite them to try out a different perspective. In this case, to see things from the other child’s point of view.

As in, “Ben, I wonder how the little girl felt when she saw you playing with her cup. Maybe she felt worried you might keep it. Or maybe she felt mad because she was about to use it.

You can use the child’s immediate parallel experience too;

As in “You know how hurt and shocked you were when the girl hit your nose? I wonder if she felt a bit like that when she fell in the water as you both pulled on that cup?”

Building empathy is all about perspective-taking.

If it feels a bit raw to use the immediate examples your child has just been through, you can reference a book or movie where a character might have felt hurt and shocked. Or look about you at the pool – are there other dramas unfolding that your child might now understand a bit more fully?

5. Leverage the Moment

Once your child has experienced being empathized with (you listened and accepted his or her feelings); and once your child has taken a stab at empathizing with the person they just had a fight with (you helped your child imagine how this other kid might be feeling), it’s time to tie a bow around the whole thing with the great “teachable moment question” “How could this have been better?”

Depending upon the ages of the children, you will totally guide these conversations (ages zero to 6 or so); brainstorm together (ages 6 – 11 or so); or allow the young person to come up with his or her own age-appropriate solutions. But for our two four year olds Zoe and Ben, you might say something like:

Zoe, now that we’ve seen how much Ben wanted to play with some toys, and how sad he was that he didn’t bring any to the pool do you think it might work to see if he’d like to borrow a couple cups if you knew you’d get them back. Shall I help you ask?”


Ben, now that we’ve seen how worried Zoe was that you might take and keep her cup and how mad she was about how you held it over your heard, do you think it might be good to try asking first – to see if you could just borrow it? Shall I help you give that a try?”


I know this is super specific – but the five principles for teaching empathy remain, no matter what the age of your child. Your way of dealing with this will grow with your child. And – as I think you’ll discover – these simple teachable steps lead beautifully into the wonderfully deep work showcased last week in Roman Kruznaric‘s work.


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

Teaching Empathy to Adults

Maybe you’ve already heard of him?

Dubbed “One of Britain’s leading lifestyle philosophers” by The Observer this chap has 436 links to his name in the newspaper’s search function (as of June 10th, 2015 anyway). They LOVE this guy. He’s the author of ~

And now, having reviewed some of his impressive body of work on empathy and more, I’m a wholehearted fan as well.

  • Q:   So, who IS this guy?
  • A:   Roman Krznaric
  • Q:   Why the fuss?
  • A:   Well, with regard to the subject of empathy – understanding it, seeing the relevance of it, noticing the historical sweep of it, fostering it, and teaching it – Mr. Roman Krznaric (pronounced Kruz-Na-Ric) rules the turf. It makes no sense for me to reinvent this wheel. Instead I’m going to do two simple things here today.
  1. Summarize Krznaric’s six habits of highly empathic people and link it to the original article published in The Daily Good.
  2. Embed a 20 minute You Tube video of Roman giving this talk for those who prefer visuals.

1. Six Habits of Highly Empathic People – abbreviated.

Habit 1: Cultivate curiosity about strangers “Cultivating curiosity requires more than having a brief chat about the weather. Crucially, it tries to understand the world inside the head of the other person. We are confronted by strangers every day, like the heavily tattooed woman who delivers your mail or the new employee who always eats his lunch alone. Set yourself the challenge of having a conversation with one stranger every week. All it requires is courage.”

Habit 2: Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities “We all have assumptions about others and use collective labels—e.g., “Muslim fundamentalist,” “welfare mom”—that prevent us from appreciating their individuality. HEPs challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what they share with people rather than what divides them.”

Habit 3: Try another person’s life “So you think ice climbing and hang-gliding are extreme sports? Then you need to try experiential empathy, the most challenging—and potentially rewarding—of them all. HEPs expand their empathy by gaining direct experience of other people’s lives, putting into practice the Native American proverb, Walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticize him.”

Habit 4: Listen hard—and open up “There are two traits required for being an empathic conversationalist. One is to master the art of radical listening. “What is essential,” says Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist and founder of Non-Violent Communication (NVC), “is our ability to be present to what’s really going on within—to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that very moment.” HEPs listen hard to others and do all they can to grasp their emotional state and needs, whether it is a friend who has just been diagnosed with cancer or a spouse who is upset at them for working late yet again. But listening is never enough. The second trait is to make ourselves vulnerable. Removing our masks and revealing our feelings to someone is vital for creating a strong empathic bond. Empathy is a two-way street that, at its best, is built upon mutual understanding—an exchange of our most important beliefs and experiences.”

Habit 5: Inspire mass action and social change “We typically assume empathy happens at the level of individuals, but HEPs understand that empathy can also be a mass phenomenon that brings about fundamental social change. Just think of the movements against slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries on both sides of the Atlantic. As journalist Adam Hochschild reminds us, “The abolitionists placed their hope not in sacred texts but human empathy,” doing all they could to get people to understand the very real suffering on the plantations and slave ships. Equally, the international trade union movement grew out of empathy between industrial workers united by their shared exploitation. The overwhelming public response to the Asian tsunami of 2004 emerged from a sense of empathic concern for the victims, whose plight was dramatically beamed into our homes on shaky video footage.”

Habit 6: Develop an ambitious imagination “A final trait of HEPs is that they do far more than empathize with the usual suspects. We tend to believe empathy should be reserved for those living on the social margins or who are suffering. This is necessary, but it is hardly enough. We also need to empathize with people whose beliefs we don’t share or who may be “enemies” in some way. If you are a campaigner on global warming, for instance, it may be worth trying to step into the shoes of oil company executives—understanding their thinking and motivations—if you want to devise effective strategies to shift them towards developing renewable energy. A little of this “instrumental empathy” (sometimes known as “impact anthropology”) can go a long way.”

If this whet your appetite for the full article, click → The Six Habits of Highly Empathic People.

2. Six Habits of Highly Empathic People – the movie.


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

Thriving Through Tough Times

Screen shot 2015-06-03 at 12.08.47 PMYour partner is going through a rough patch. You suspect they may be slipping into a bit of a depression. Maybe a chronic injury is preventing much-needed regular exercise. Maybe they’ve been skipped over for a promotion again and now feel both undervalued and trapped.

You love this person – in theory. But you don’t feel those loving feelings right now, and its been a while. You’ve checked your relationship tool kit and tried a bunch of stuff.

You’ve met with those Parts of you who feel triggered by depression and/or work-place inertia so you could listen to your partner non-reactively. You recognize your partner might be stuck in a Part of him or herself which is young and vulnerable and right now this is just how your partner is facing the world.

But none of this is helping your background ticker-tape-script of frustration, resentment, and exhaustion. There’s this nagging “I could do better! I deserve more! Is this it?”

What happens now in a relationship is often what sets a mediocre or doomed relationship apart from a great and robust relationship.

  • How do we thrive through tough times?
  • What allows a relationship to survive after those fuzzy “in love” feelings fade?
  • What’s the antidote when resentment and disappointment creep in?
  • How can we dwell in the presence of another human being for years and manage to not allow familiarity to breed contempt?

Two things.

  • Empathy – for your partner
  • Compassion – for yourself.

What do I mean by empathy for the other?

Screen shot 2015-06-03 at 10.08.29 AMIt’s the social and emotional glue that connects us to one another. It allows us to see things from the other chap’s point of view by going within ourselves to cross-reference our own experiences and feelings.

We can imagine the joy of another by remembering our own joy. We can imagine the sadness of another by remembering our own sadness. We feel into ourselves in order to extend outward.

The limit to empathy might be, of course, our inability to cross-reference every human condition.

If your partner is injured, or flat-lined at work, it’s very possible you can dig into your own life-story and remember how you felt when you were prevented from exercising or overlooked at work. You can allow an upwelling of understanding through shared experience. Thus reminded, thus equipped with a memory for who you were under these same burdens, you can also remember what helped you.

Probably you responded well to patience, understanding, kindness. And, if you came through those tough times, you have a sense that ‘this too shall pass.”

Screen shot 2015-06-03 at 12.20.11 PMSo, the extent to which you can dig back into your own experience and resonate with your partner allows you to stay the course. You’d hate to have been ridiculed, chivvied, belittled or worse – abandoned – at a time such as this.

It’s the good old Golden Rule ~ “Do unto others as you would be done by.”

What do I mean by compassion for oneself?

Screen shot 2015-06-03 at 10.10.23 AMThis is the astonishingly transcendent ability we humans have to stand beside, to be with, in the face of the unknown.

You may not be able to tap into your own experience of someone else’s difficult situation, but you are willing to stand beside them: with feeling; with caring; with an outpouring of human-to-human connection.

And (or, but) the magic of compassion is that “It has to begin with me”: With compassion for Self.

Right there inside your wonderful complex inner world of opinion and judgment, right there where your background ticker-tape-script of frustration, resentment, and exhaustion deliver the nagging sense of “I could do better! I deserve more! Is this it?” you get to STOP . . .

and stand beside your Self with love. With a hug. With a sort of “welcome to the deliciously imperfect human condition – isn’t it amazing! Aren’t I amazing, to be standing here right now noticing my judgments. Noticing my partner’s frailty. Maybe there never was a memo that life should be easy. Maybe simply being present to this particular version of imperfection is perfect.”

Screen shot 2015-06-03 at 12.26.50 PMFrom this place of deep compassion for yourself, you can respond using the lesser known Platinum rule ~

Do unto others as they would be done by

Untethered from your experiences of what might be their pain, you are free to simply BE. It’s a form of radical acceptance.

Here are 2 quotes from one of my favorite mentors ~ and John Gottmans’ pick for the best living couples therapist ~ Dan Wile.

  • Despite what you might have been told, you can expect your relationship to solve your problems, fill gaps in your personality, and help you love yourself.
  • When choosing a long-term partner, you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty or fifty years.

So, before we dive more deeply over the next 3 weeks into whether and how empathy and compassion can be taught, I’m inviting you to simply experience your response to this Rumi meditation.

Screen shot 2015-06-02 at 3.51.43 PM


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

  • Thriving Through Tough Times

Thanks to Ernest Howard Shepard for the wonderful Winnie The Pooh illustrations. 

Narcissism~Now What?

If you read my last post and find yourself wondering whether you are in a relationship with (or related to) someone suffering from (NPD) Narcissistic Personality Disorder, I have to start off by saying, ‘I’m so sorry.”

This is a tough situation. However, despite all the oncoming tumult, if you’ll allow yourself to open your eyes, move forward and come out the other side,  you can count on 3 things:

  1. You will survive
  2. You will need support.
  3. Time does heal.

WHY this fuss?

If you’ve connected the dots correctly, reading further will have you beginning to realize that your life will never be the same again. Your (formerly?) beloved husband / wife / partner / father / mother / sibling cannot simply “decide to get better.”  You are now the adult in charge. You will need to do all the research, clear thinking, decision-making, due-diligence, self-protection, possible exit planning and face all the consequences by yourself.

You will be alone. Worse than alone – you may be actively undermined.

WHAT are you telling me?

If indeed you are discovering that you are married to / living with / being parented by someone whose symptoms are highly correlated to NPD, and if they are pretty far along (because this is a spectrum disorder – the person you are worried about may have only a few of these traits, or they may be text-book classics) you will experience ~

  • Only They Matter

You are peripheral. The narcissist orbits his/her own sun. You matter only to the extent you have what the narcissist wants. Be honest – after spending how long with this person – do they know you, cherish you, love you, help you, care for you. Do you matter just because you are you?

  • Constant Tension

In an effort to avoid feeling the emptiness inside, a narcissist depends upon external factors for their inner life. There is no stable, predictable place. In any moment this person may spin from a hyper-inflated sense of brilliance after a moment of praise, to outrage and loathing after a perceived snub. While their modus operandi is “It’s all about me” in fact the narcissist lives in a frightening smoke and mirrors reality with a capricious Oz pulling the strings.

  • Ineffective Communication

To avoid feeling vulnerable, the narcissist will come out with guns blazing. Think a large two-year-old having a tantrum. They’re prone to attack, blame, criticize, banter rudely or accuse in public. This makes having genuine friends almost impossible.

  • Being Controlled

Understanding the narcissist is reliant on the external world for their internal reality, you’ll see why they need to control everything – timing, events, people, and finances. Any breach in the choreographed plan is devastating for the narcissist, who will employ any means to prevent it.

  • Lack of Responsibility

If you believe the world revolves around you (as a narcissist does) then common, shared morality is meaningless.  The narcissist typically suffers no guilt; can’t be shamed into behaving; they’ll see no point in accepting responsibility for anything that has gone badly. In fact, because the narcissist must see themselves as superior and blameless in all situations, this trait will possibly uncover a whole heap of lies.

  • Zero Empathy

Since his or her own emotions are too painful for the narcissist to experience, they are certainly not good at empathizing with others. While you may have been told that you need to attend to the narcissist’s feelings, you’ll not get any reciprocity here.  He/she is neither interested nor capable of attending to your emotional realm. This includes never having to say they are sorry.

  • Spontaneous Rages

Living with an ugly void where a healthy self should reside, the narcissist’s inner realm is a painful mess. This means they are highly unstable. A waiter, hotel clerk, teacher, you – might trigger a violent outburst totally disproportionate to the “issue” at hand.

  • Being Exploited

Remember #1 – Only They Matter? You’ll be used. You’re a finite resource that will be mined, polluted, depleted, and possibly destroyed. All your resources – your time, expertise, help, connections, income are up for grabs.

Thanks to Clinton Power for some of this ideas.


I am running a 5 part mini series ( 25-29 March 2013) on Narcissism. I am seeing more and more clients impacted by living with someone who suffers from NPD and the first step in the healing process is to learn as much as you can about this disorder.  I’ll print a list of helpful resources in Part 5.

  1. Narcissism – Symptoms                                
  2. Narcissism – Now What?
  3. Narcissist – Living with one
  4. Narcissist – Leaving one
  5. Narcissist – Healing from life with one