Our Experience Teaching Empathy to Young Leaders
A few weeks ago, I saw a bumper sticker that read: “I am not good at feelings. Will you settle for sarcasm?” I got a chuckle out of it. But it also reminded me that we don’t do feelings very well in our culture. Boys in particular, receive messages that encourage them to disconnect from their emotions.
In the rural indigenous communities where we work in Guatemala, this problem is amplified ten-fold. Boys grow up in a strong culture of machismo and Mayan girls are expected to be stoic and mostly silent. In both cases the expression and acknowledgement of emotions is discouraged.
At Reading Village we believe that socially and emotionally intelligent young people become better parents, citizens, leaders.
Empathy involves a whole package of skills and social beliefs. Our work with youth leaders helps them learn to understand their own feelings, express themselves appropriately, and take the other person’s perspective. Here are some of the ways we teach empathy:
- Our community facilitators model empathy in their interactions with youth leaders
- We create a climate of emotional safety and peer support at every team gathering
- We weave awareness and listening skills into our workshops using role plays and discussion
- We ask the youth leaders to host an annual visit from international travelers, requiring them to consider what it means to be a stranger in a strange place
Perhaps the most powerful way we teach empathy is by asking our youth leaders to teach it to the children in their towns. In this way, our generation is propagated from one generation to the next.
Take Carmela, for example. Just the other day she was reading a story to a group of children about a duck who has forgotten how to fly. After reading a few pages aloud she paused and asked, “What do you think the duck is feeling right now?”
High pitched voices screamed – “sad!” “frustrated!” “angry!”
Not missing a beat, Carmen saw a learning opportunity and asked: “Have you ever felt that way?”
In unison the kids yelled, “Si! Yes!”
“What do you think the duck needs right now?” Carmen probed.
The response – a boy raised his hand in the air and yelled out “un abrazo” – a hug!
By: Larry Dressler, Founding Board Member of Reading Village