Externalizing Empathy

Once youth have grasped the basics of empathy, they put it into practice in programs and in their own lives. They identify, understand and manage judgments. They then demonstrate and appropriately show care when others reveal their own emotional experiences.

Empathy occurs when judgment or indifference is replaced with understanding and caring. The Possibility Project’s (TPP) Paul Griffin said it begins “when their eyes are opened to the reality of what’s going on with other young people.” This cultivates the soil in which empathy can grow. By listening to the stories of others, youth see a fuller picture of others. They begin to understand why people behave the way they do. They realize everyone has a story.

Over time, these experiences teach youth to manage judgment by encouraging “careful curiosity and a desire to get to know and seek knowledge about that which we do not understand and ask questions instead of pointing fingers or turning away,” as AHA! Attitude, Harmony, Achievement (AHA!) wrote in their application for the Social and emotional learning (SEL) Challenge.

Forming judgments about those in social groupings different from one’s own is perhaps a universal experience. However, youth are not always initially aware of this judgment. Allison Williams, Senior Vice President, Programs at Wyman, described the process that occurs throughout teen participation in the Teen Outreach Program (TOP):

Quote markSeveral teens experienced new awareness; owning behaviors about which they were not even aware. As the teens reflected upon this lesson they continued to voice additional learnings. They recognized times when they were judged by someone or judged someone else. They identified how stopping to talk and understand the perspective of the other person would have helped the situation.

Recognizing these judgments, managing the tendency to judge, and replacing them with understanding and empathy require nuanced and personal knowledge about others’ experiences and emotions.

When judgments are managed, it allows youth to fully engage empathetically. Demonstrating care for others is not only an important part of what staff provide for youth, but it also grows among the youth as they begin to develop and express empathy toward each other. Empathy includes an emotional response. It involves identification with others and a vicarious experiencing or understanding of their feelings, thoughts, and attitudes. One youth in the AHA! program described it this way:

Quote markI just kind of figured out the difference between sympathy and empathy. Empathy is feeling it—feeling what they’re feeling—but having sympathy is just kind of being like, “Man that sucks.” Like, “I’m really sorry for you.” And not actually taking into consideration what they are personally feeling.

Empathy is a natural response when youth listen deeply to the experiences, emotions, and stories of their peers and suspend judgment. One of the leaders from AHA! put it this way:

Quote markOne of the most satisfying aspects of facilitating AHA! groups is watching youth learn to empathize with one another. We teach them ways to do this, but ultimately it is a natural outgrowth of the kind of sharing and listening they do together in our groups. It just happens, and it is a beautiful thing to witness, acknowledge, and reinforce.

Further Reading

Join the Discussion

How does your program help youth discuss their deeply held beliefs and preconceived notions that can often stop empathy development?