“I can’t think of a single place in my life where I would need to use empathy,” a student shared not too long ago. From her perspective, in that moment, empathy as a leadership tool was a complete waste of time. As a life coach and coach trainer, I have come across a number of students who feel that same way.

Yikes – with the prevalence of bullying and school violence, it seems the topic of empathy is worthy of our time and attention.

While there are many ideas of what empathy means, we will use the definition utilized in the Academic Life Coaching program. Empathy: The ability to accurately identify (understand) the positive or negative thoughts and emotions of others.

An important distinction between empathy, sympathy, and compassion is that with empathy we “get” what is going on with another person, but it doesn’t necessary mean we feel what others are feeling.  That is where sympathy and compassion come in.

So, is empathy a valuable tool we need to teach teens who struggle to see the point of it?  Absolutely!  Empathy allows walls to come down and youth to get to that place where they authentically know and are known by others. It’s a gift I hope many learn to freely give and receive.

While empathy comes easier and more naturally to some people, if we view it as a muscle that can be strengthened with use, the playing field is evened out, and there is great hope that all teens, no matter what their background, can move toward deeper, more rewarding, and authentic relationships. This, in turn, will build into students a key leadership skill they can use for a lifetime.

The really great news? Practicing empathy can be a fun learning experience with an easy game called Instant History.  The rules are simple. Pick someone you know or don’t know (your choice) and create a story about their day that includes future hopes and dreams.

This is an imaginary story students create to help build the skill of empathy.

Sample questions to consider using:

  • What was ___________‘s first thought this morning when he/she woke up?
  • What are some of ___________’s greatest values? Aspirations? Fears?
  • What is life like from __________’s point-of-view?

Accuracy of the story isn’t the key.  The key is helping teens take a step into another person’s shoes and really think about what life is like from their point-of-view. Some teens have never considered life from someone else’s point-of-view and can it can be a profound learning/life changing moment for them.

While teens tend to have a reputation of being self-centered (we all have our moments, right?), with a bit of self-awareness and a few tools they can quickly move toward being passionate, empathetic leaders who are making a difference among their friends, families, and communities. I love that for them!

Content is based off of ALC 1.0 coach training materials. Brenda is a certified ALC coach and trains youth advocates in the ALC 1.0 coach training program.  For more information about this program or about how to train as a coach, please click contact us.