Boosting Empathy with Five Simple Words

Ricky was a big ball of anger. In all fairness, he had plenty to be angry about. The first years of his life were pretty rough. Now, at age 7, home life was starting to normalize. But sometimes just getting through the day without throwing a chair was enough for him to handle, let alone any sort of academic rigor. He had a hard time seeing others’ points of view. He was definitely my most challenging student and constantly in need of my attention. 

One day Ricky lifted a highly coveted pencil from a close friend’s desk. I saw him do it, and since the friend was out of the room at the time, I knew this was yet another instance of Ricky’s “sticky fingers.”

I took him aside and asked calmly, “When did [your friend] give you permission use his pencil?”

“Uh, he didn’t. But I’m just borrowing for a second!”

“Ricky, you need to ask permission first.”

“But just for a second, he won’t mind!”

“Ricky, how would you feel if he borrowed your favorite pencil without asking you?”

“I uh...” he stammered.

“Really, how would you feel?”

“I wouldn’t like it.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t like people taking my stuff.”

“So if you would feel bad, imagine how your friend might feel.”

He still wasn’t happy about it, but he paused, nodded, put the pencil back and stomped back to his seat.

Sometimes the simple phrase–“How would you feel if...”--can have a huge impact. It can make someone stop and pause for a moment. And in that moment, there is a glimmer of empathy. As students get older, that foundation of empathy becomes part of their moral code. They’ll make choices based on that code.

Unlike intelligence, empathy can be learned. As teachers, we cannot ignore the impact that empathy (or lack thereof) can have on the learning environment. We must strive to build it and model it, nurture it and sustain it if we hope to give our students a safe emotional place in which to learn. Those five powerful words, “How would you feel if...”, can help build empathy in all learners.

The question works well in a variety of situations, both in and out of school:

“How would you feel if someone didn’t give you credit for the hard work you did?”

It also works to explain a historical perspective:

How would you feel if you if you had to move to a new country where you didn’t know the language or customs?”

“How would you feel if you were told your land wasn’t your land anymore?”

It works for children and adults alike:

“How would you feel if someone was talking on the phone while you were trying to watch a movie?”

“How would you feel if you weren’t allowed to marry the person you love?”

Of course, the question doesn’t work all the time. For those cases, I have to dig deeper into my Teacher Bag of Mediation Tricks. However, I still try to use this simple phrase as much as possible. As a teacher, as a parent and as a citizen of this world.

Barlow is a teacher in Connecticut.


Well said. I have found the

Submitted by Ray Slade on 20 February 2011 - 7:44pm.

Well said.
I have found the effectiveness of this phrase however, is limited to both the degree of internal honesty and self awareness. Some people are so unaware of their own feelings or so afraid to express their true feelings that it's easier to resort to dishonesty or frivolity. A good question to follow up with is, "How would you want people to respond to you in that situation?"
Of course, the question is also one I constantly need to ask myself.

With students who struggle

Submitted by ashley on 22 February 2011 - 11:17am.

With students who struggle with empathy, often the answer to "how would you feel if" is, "I wouldn't care". They have hard time recognizing and aknowledging others feelings and their own. Sometimes I ask those students to articulate how they think a 3rd party would feel in the situation. Example: What if Jimmy borrowed Bob's pencil without asking. How might Bob feel?