Empathy, other emotional connection and cognitive perspective-taking, is an ability inherent within most of us. Yet, rarely applied in our own lives it is unsurprisingly lacking in society at large. As someone not satisfied with this status quo I decided to take a small action to do something about it!
Two years ago I created the first empathy skills training called "Empathy Experiences", constructed with engaging pedagogy designed to expose students to trans-disciplinary theory of empathy, i.e. how it works beyond the vague-fuzziness too often associated with empathy. With the foundations set, the real value of the program is empowering students to select their own empathy adventure, exploring a topic with a person of their choice beyond the classroom.
Yesterday the team and I witnessed the 5th and 6th batches present their empathy stories – a mix of personal transformation and theory of mind perspective taking for their chosen partner. These students, coming from diverse cultures, a full spectrum of academic fields and ages (18 to 50+), never fail to amaze! With guided exploration students developed understanding with real people on issues such as homelessness, migration, being elderly, living with social anxiety, confronting serious medical conditions, stoic mothers, distant fathers, neighbours and long lost friends.
It is truly humbling to see the passion and effort. Despite being overloaded with their regular university degree work, they choose to take the more difficult road beyond personal boundaries, connecting with people well outside their ‘likeness’ or with familiar people on taboo topics. In doing so enables students to uncover the dynamic nature of their Self, confronting skewed perceptions and breaking stereotypes. It is challenging is many obvious and more subtle unexpected yet confronting ways.
Starting this program with a vision to seed more empathy in my home city, it is now growing far beyond. I am truly grateful for this opportunity to mentor so many wonderful future leaders, with the binding feature that we are all humans wanting to better understand other humans. My sincerest gratitude for all effort and support, from students, their partners, the University of Technology Sydney for believing in the concept, and all other collaborators. To me, there is nothing more special than seeing the meaningful development of people through our efforts with empathy.