The Empathy Foundation Network

Growing empathy for a peaceful world

I have just discovered the exciting work of Professor Roslyn Arnold, Dean of Education at the University of Tasmania. She has published a book "Empathetic Intelligence" which really resonates with new understandings. Althought these are focused at educators there's lots of learnings for us all. Check it out below!

Empathic Intelligence
Empathic Intelligence is the title of a new book by Professor Roslyn Arnold, Dean of Education at the University of Tasmania (UNSW Press, 2005). Extracts are reproduced with Professor Arnold's permission.

Arnold asks: What is it that makes exceptional educators and other professional leaders so effective? She suggests that the concept of empathic intelligence helps us to answer this question.
Empathic intelligence is a theory of relatedness. It is relevant to person-centred situations and professional contexts such as teaching and learning. It explains some of the salient skills, abilities and attitudes which underpin effectiveness in these contexts - things such as enthusiasm, expertise, capacity to engage, and empathy itself. (pp. 11-12)

The book has chapters on:
• the concept of empathic intelligence
• empathy as a function of mind, brain and feeling
• empathy, narrative and the imagination
• the social usefulness of empathy
• creating empathically intelligent organisations
• developing empathic cultures of learning.

Throughout the book, there are hypothetical scenarios and activities which encourage teachers and others to reflect, in groups or individually, on their practice and on their professional relationships. An example is below.

You are a recently graduated teacher in a school. You are sensitive, caring, enthusiastic and well prepared for your professional responsibilities. Shortly after you settle into your school, you realise that the qualities and attributes you demonstrate are threatening to some of your colleagues. Students value highly the way you relate to and work with them, but the effects of others' professional envy begin to erode your self-confidence. What strategies do you develop to manage the situation? (p. 61)

Arnold distinguishes between emotional intelligence and empathic intelligence.
Empathic intelligence is not the same as emotional intelligence or cognitive intelligence, because it is essentially concerned with the dynamic between thinking and feeling and the ways in which each contributes to the making of meaning. The word dynamic is important because it highlights the psychic energy generated when one mobilises both thought and feeling in understanding experience. When there is an intensity of feeling matched with intensity of thought, transforming learning experiences may occur. (p. 20)
Empathic intelligence is a way of using various intelligences and sensitivities to engage effectively with others. Typically there will be an awareness of purpose and effect in these engagements, and a capacity to shift dynamics if necessary. For example, an educator may engage in a pleasant conversation with a student about something unrelated to work at hand, and, in so doing, exercise a measure of empathic intelligence to build rapport and relatedness. (p. 19)

Arnold's aim is to provide new and experienced teachers, leaders and those involved in influencing others with a conceptual framework for further professional development.
Central to the concept of empathic intelligence is the argument that learning is effective when educators are attuned to their own thinking and feeling processes, are able to imagine how others might be thinking and feeling, and use their sensitivity and imagination to create purposeful and energising learning experiences. Enacted in a climate of care, these skills are all part of professional expertise and have the potential to transform both relating and learning. (p. 12)

One of my central arguments is that learning can be enhanced by educative processes which recognise how thoughts (cognition) and feelings (affect) can work together to enhance both intellectual and emotional maturity. When thoughts and feelings can be encouraged to interact in dynamic ways, better learning, communication and leadership can occur. (pp. 12-13)

Enthusiasm, engagement, expertise and empathy
Arnold identifies four attributes of empathic intelligence: enthusiasm, a capacity to engage, expertise and, of course, empathy itself.
Enthusiasm refers to the sense of spiritedness, joy, resilience, confidence and warmth which people demonstrate as they work and engage with others. The sustained enthusiasm of professionals for their work can mobilise positive outcomes for those they relate to. Enthusiasm can spark and sustain engagement, but in contexts where learning is the desired outcome, expertise also has to … make the engagement purposeful and focused, as distinct from merely entertaining or diverting … Empathy is an ability to understand your own thoughts and feelings and, by analogy, apply your self understanding to the service of others. It is a sophisticated ability involving attunement, de-centring, conjecture and introspection: an act of thoughtful, heartfelt imagination. (pp. 23, 24, 86)

The book is grounded in well-established concepts of effective teaching and learning and elaborated in a language which is at once familiar, new and evocative. Arnold provides readers with reference points from books, articles, films and personal anecdotes. These anecdotes assist readers to be able to see reflected their own experiences as learners, teachers and professional colleagues. She encourages readers to observe themselves more closely in interaction with students, clients, colleagues and significant others.

One of the most fascinating chapters looks at narratives and their function in our inner world. With diverse examples from the writings of Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Inga Clendinnen and Gitta Sereny and the film Life is beautiful, Arnold builds up a compelling argument for the capacity of stories to stimulate readers and viewers to engage in imagined worlds and identify with the thoughts, feelings, values and views of narrators. She concludes that such experiences lay a foundation for an empathic approach to experience.

Arnold also suggests a number of practical steps towards developing empathic intelligence. She offers as a checklist for teachers or other professionals to reflect on their ongoing development of empathic intelligence and their capacity for transformative leadership. These are reproduced below.

Develop self-consciousness. I use the term in a non-pejorative sense to mean self-awareness, self-knowledge and self-acceptance. It doesn't help the empathic approach to life and work to be overly self-critical. It can be difficult sometimes for sensitive, altruistic individuals to determine the weight of contributing influences on a situation; hence the value of supportive, constructive networks.

Track your own feelings and thought. The primary source of empathic intelligence is your own feelings, thoughts, relationships, personal narratives, enthusiasm and 'self'-expertise. The practice of labelling your own feelings and expressing them, even through reflective thought, enhances self-understanding. Ideally, you will know yourself better than anyone else because you are aware of the secrets of your heart and mind. Developing an empathically intelligent approach to living is a commitment to a life-long research project on yourself and on human nature.

Build a community. Even a community of three or more like-minded people is sufficient to enhance practice as an empathic professional. To function effectively in a family, a school or an organisation, there has to be sufficient consensus about shared core values for empathic intelligence to work. A mother who is empathic by nature will find it hard to relate empathically to her infant if she is criticised or undermined for her approach. A teacher who is scorned for being 'too soft' will have difficulties also, as will the medical, legal or other professional pressured to deal only with facts when their empathic insight indicates that attuned listening is best practice.

Develop the habit of close observation. Facial expressions, physical movements, dialogues, the ambience of classrooms, consulting rooms, theatres, public transport and shopping centres all signal and influence the ways humans think, feel and behave. Curiosity about the drama of human life is fundamental to the empathic disposition.

Practise the habit of reflective thought. Those curious about human dynamics are never short of experiences to reflect upon. While it can become habitual over time to reflect upon experience, it is also easier to observe and reflect upon those experiences which confirm our mindset, rather than those which test its robustness. Hence the need to share experiences with others, including those with different value systems and beliefs.

Extend the habit of reflective thought to the habit of imaginative, critical thought. This can be hard to do because the search for meaning, cause and effect is time-consuming and emotionally demanding. But it is worth testing assumptions and remaining alert to the possibility that existing frames of reference can do with an overhaul because that's the nature of personal growth. Playing out imaginatively in the mind 'What might happen if?' or 'What might have happened if?' expands the present to the past and future, stimulating problem-solving capacities. Again, to achieve this, it helps to be part of an empathic community.

Look to the arts (literature, music, theatre, cinema, sculpture, painting, ballet) for sources of enriching imaginative, aesthetic, sensory experiences. The life of the imagination is fundamental to empathic intelligence. In addition, experiences which are pleasurable for their own sake often fuel the necessary enthusiasm for professional life. Sometimes it helps to simply become engrossed in watching, listening, reading, observing - suspending judgment on the experience. Judgment requires analytic thought, and for balance in our lives we need both engrossment and distance.

Find your own metaphors, symbols and language to express and shape your professional (and personal) life. That disposition and practice makes experiences dynamic, rich and meaningful, even when they are potentially daunting. Help others to find their metaphors and meanings because that's what empathic education is most about.

Find your own space and furnish it. Professionals are defined, to an extent, by their scope to act autonomously. Within the mandatory responsibilities of a professional, there is always space for some autonomy and much discernment. Find that space and furnish it with your stories, your reflections, your beliefs and your hopes. Then it will be a comfort zone.

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