Blog by Margaret McEvilly, edited by Katelyn Herrygers and Betsy Peterson 

Generosity Through Empathy

Embracing your Empathetic Side

As we approach a new decade with student anxiety at an all-time high, divisive politics, and the demands of teaching and testing, Learning to Give can help you and your students keep an open heart and mind while working toward what is most important: Self-improvement and the common good of all. The key to meaningful generosity is developing empathy. 

What is empathy? Empathy is having an awareness of, and appreciation for, the feelings of another, putting oneself in another’s shoes.

Having empathy in times of strain is something to strive for, however, the challenges of our own circumstances can make it difficult to feel empathy at the times we need it most. Understanding the impact of empathy on ourselves and others can lead us to use empathy as we navigate difficult situations and encourage us to choose generosity and understanding over conflict for the good of all. Practicing empathy in everyday interactions will help you and your students become more receptive to others' needs, as well as embrace each individual’s unique contributions in community. We ALL have something to give!

Types of Empathy

There are three different types of empathy, distinguished by how much one feels and acts. First, affective empathy is “our ability to share another persons’ emotions.” People who employ affective empathy tend to deeply feel the emotions of others as if they experience that emotion firsthand. Second, cognitive empathy is the “ability to know how someone else feels and work out what they might be thinking.” Those who experience this understand what the other person is going through without sharing the same emotions. Lastly, one may feel compassionate empathy. This is when someone “goes beyond understanding and relating to other people’s situations, and pushed an individual to do something”. You may see yourself in one of these types of empathy. You many have already seen how your friends, family, and students respond when you express understanding, interpret what they are thinking, or push them to do something. Which type do you think your students respond to best? Empathy helps us connect to another, and it may help us take the action that best suits a unique person or situation. 

The Importance of Empathy

You might be wondering, “Why do we need empathy?” or “How do I teach empathy?” There are many critical factors that explain the importance of being able to empathize both in your personal life, work life, and your community. Being able to appropriately respond to situations happens when you are able to find empathy within yourself. This means you cannot force empathy. Take time to learn about it, understand the importance, and consider a time someone empathized with you. How did it make you feel? By making those connections you will be able to see empathy for yourself and learn to respond to needs in your community in the process.

Having “...greater empathy leads to more helping behaviour” (Molenberghs). If one of your missions is giving back to the world around you and helping students to see that they have the power to give back, too, then embracing your ability to be empathetic will help your students and community in the long run.

Pascal Molenberghs tells us that people in our own circle are typically the ones we are able to empathize with and help the most, but in order to grow and expand our impact, we must practice empathizing with everyday community members as well. This can be done through random acts of kindness that are often underrated. By asking someone who is alone to sit with you at lunch or giving someone having a tough day a pep talk you can make their day and grow in empathy yourself! Through our personal efforts in becoming an active member of our larger community, we can help create a far greater, more accepting society.

Resources for Increasing Empathetic Communication and Action

Is That Fair?: Students define what fairness means to them and compare and contrast definitions. They build empathy as they discuss others’ experiences with fairness.

Creating a Welcoming Classroom All Year: Students gain empathy and use language to describe the mixed feelings that come with being new to a community.

Being in Touch with Your Feelings: This lesson helps students become more aware of their own values and sense of self by describing themselves and their choices.

Personality Types and Giving: This lesson will help your students find relation between their personality traits and giving behavior. 

Motivations for Giving and Serving: In this resource, you will examine the theories concerning why people contribute their time, talent, and treasure for the common good.

The Importance of Empathy TODAY

Our society is much more aware of the need for empathy and respect now versus 20 years ago. Although many of us are able to recognize that diversity, equity, and inclusivity are positive steps in our cultural development, there is room to grow. Some may struggle to recognize the need for increased open-mindedness. “While most environments do not lack diversity, it proves difficult to achieve inclusivity everywhere due to lack of support from some members” (Riordan, 2014). This is why being able to empathize with those who may be different from yourself is extremely important.

Many people do not have intentional bias, but continue to gravitate toward people similar to themselves, and that is where the need for exposure and empathy come into play. Author Christine Riordan says, “Diversity is useless without inclusivity,” so it is time to make it our mission to increase inclusivity and empathy within our communities and schools. We must interact in society with people and places that are unfamiliar in order to grow our experience and opportunity for inclusivity and empathy.

Learning to Give is an excellent tool to facilitate interactions in a broader community and to build skills of empathy and generosity. By fitting Learning to Give lessons into your curriculum, you and your students will learn about people and organizations that make up the diverse community. They will explore different ways to give and address issues they learn about. Students will also learn there are many different solutions to address similar problems, and ultimately, their empathy will guide their lifelong pursuit to make our community and the whole world stronger.