The Empathy Continuum

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In the IB Curriculum, the practice of empathy is an ATL skill listed under the ‘Social Skills’ cluster and is placed in the subcategory of ‘Collaboration’. For Service Learning in all four IB programs, empathy is the both the path and the destination. Co-developed with feedback from my MYP students, I hope you find this empathy continuum useful in your IB work along with the IB Service Ladder (student version) for meaningful discussions with your students. Please do read my reflections on the use and power of this tool as I contextualise this complex skill, concept and emotion (which has multiple denotations and connotations) and its important purpose in IB teaching and learning.

In the IB, educators often talk about lifelong learning. This abstract concept comes to life in the activation of the skill of empathy. Empathy is complex but a lifelong gift every educator should seek to give their students, assuming they practice and value it too, as when it is understood it is a lifelong tool. In my experience, like many complex skills, empathy cannot be taught in haste – rather, it needs to be discussed, modelled and cultivated. Empathy is a personal choice and a private journey. Yet, educators can enable students to talk and think about it. This is where the continuum verbalises thinking and enables metacognition in a bid to ensure the skill remains with our students long after their schooling is done. It is an act of hope; the sowing of a seed. All in all, when the exams are done, empathy is the education that remains.

In my role as service coordinator, I have found that students often get overwhelmed with the need in the world. As a realistic goal, I tell my students that if they develop compassion or empathy for ONE cause/person outside their personal lives, that is progress. If they show kindness, they are practicing it. I tell them that achieving empathy is not a competition – one is never “done” with this skill. I tell them it is ok if all they feel is sympathy (vs. empathy) for a cause. I tell them that compassion is a great goal and that there is a limit to how many causes we can truly be empathetic about. I encourage them to try many forms of service to figure out which cause they connect to – and maybe, after a period of meaningful involvement, they will feel it.

In reality, we can only start from where we stand. So in our service learning, we embrace where we currently are with our feelings about with any local/global issue/need, but seek to move ahead and care more through our actions, interactions and involvement. Service is learning by doing. And after meaningful service actions, most students do feel more compassion or even empathy towards a cause.

It should be noted that while some students are natural empaths, most need to work on developing this skill. By making the level of connection explicit, visible and shame free, we can begin the conversation about making caring common. A minority of students may feel they don’t care about any issue/person outside themselves as they begin their service journey – I never try to convince them to change their mind. I remind myself that these students will walk the farthest on their service journey. And thanks to the service learning experiences and the actions of their peers, by the end of the MYP/DP, they usually do. There are some experts like Paul Bloom who think that empathy is overrated and even harmful. I use their work for TOK style discussions. Personally, I think the skill/emotion is not the issue – it connects. But well-intentioned yet unexamined actions stemming from empathy can cause harm. And this is where the skill of principled empathy needs to be developed. What is needed here is humility, listening and an examination of ethics. So, we discuss how empathy or compassion without ethics can lead to projecting need (instead of asking what is needed) and the saviour complex. This is where we talk about principled action – which may mean not acting, if the community in need doesn’t want/need us to do what we wanted to do. At times, the examination of ethics reveals that the action would have a negative effect. Here, it is important to humbly ask and listen to those in need as they ask. To keep an open mind, we discuss how one does not need empathy to do acts of kindness and remind ourselves about the research on how service fosters happiness – there is no altruism in service!

Compassion vs. Empathy

It is after much deliberation and research that empathy has been put after compassion on this continuum. In many dictionaries, empathy is defined as ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. Modelled on the German translation of Greek empatheia, Einfühlung (ein “in” + Fühlung “feeling”), empathy drives connection. One is literally able to be “in” another’s emotion. Compassion , on the other hand, is defined as ‘feeling of sorrow/pity excited by the sufferings/ misfortunes of another’- and is closer to the definition of sympathy which is less likely to drive strong connections. In addition to the thoughts of my students, the work of Brene Brown on the power of vulnerability and other psychologists on empaths has been instrumental in shaping my thinking and choice here. The word exists in our lexicon and is not a negative one. In the context of service we need to redefine empathy in regards to our actions and not get rid of the word/ concept/ emotion/ skill of empathy. For a world with empathy, with people trying to imagine what it is like to be in the shoes of another, is better than a one where there is no attempt to understand others, as long as the service actions that follow are requested, principled and ethical. Eventually, empathy is a skill listed in the ATL and my purpose is to help students develop their ability to understand and use it. For these reasons, empathy stands at the pinnacle of this continuum – yet, it is not the only goal – whether we use the words compassion, kindness, care or empathy, the intention is positive, the actions must be examined and connection is the aim.

In conversation with students, we agreed that expecting everyone to empathise with any particular need is not realistic. There is a limit to how much we can truly understand the pain of another. Yet, activating empathy helps us imagine, connect and care. Activation of empathy MUST be followed by an examination of ethics, lest the path to harm not be paved with good intentions. My students tell me there is value is aspiring to feel empathy. To activate empathy, students it is more effective to think back to a painful or happy moment in one’s own life and use these as a way to forge connection. Pain and happiness are human conditions; they are universal and can become a bridge between people. The message here is “I stand with you; you are not alone.” We also shared stories of receiving empathy and reflected on its impact to evaluate its value. We talk about being principled empaths, not bystanders – the world, we think, needs more hummingbirds. Thus if this is the door we want to open, emotional risk taking seems to be key to being empathise (even if limited) with the pain or joy of others. Empathy allows us to connect more deeply. Connection is the goal.

I agree with Brene Brown when she says, “Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgement, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘you’re not alone’.” Yet, the actions Brown describes (listening, holding space, withholding judgement) are neither simple nor always natural. Plus, these are adult-level skills. The young people we work with do need a map to navigate this complex skill and emotional landscape. They need honest conversations about empathy in all its variations and explicit teaching of this skill whenever the context lends itself to its activation. The process and pathway to deeper connection need to be clear to our IB students if they are “to create a better and more peaceful world” (IBO mission statement) by making kindness commonplace, one human at a time.

#empathymatters “We’re all just walking each other home.” Ram Dass




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