The Power of Empathy

Posted by Jason David on November 20, 2019


Empathy can be powerful. It may be the basis, or the vehicle, for transformative action. In the context of building healthy and strong communities, empathy develops trust, supports communication, and cultivates relationships. In the context of justice, empathy spurs individual and collective action, especially when head and heart are accessed together. 

ACDC Carroll EmpathyI learned about empathy’s different forms and expressions from Rasheda Carroll, Assistant Head of School for Equity, Inclusion and Counseling at Westland School, during her keynote speech at the Across Colors Diversity Conference on November 9th. Carroll affirmed the importance of developing empathy as an educational and social tool, citing Elizabeth Segal and Daniel Goleman as key researchers in this field. 

Here is some of what I learned about the different types of empathy:

  • Affective Empathy: also known as emotional empathy, this is the ability to share the feelings of another person. This type of empathy is physiological and unconscious. This includes mirroring the sensations other people are having. 
  • Cognitive Empathy: this includes perspective-taking and a process in which we can surface and explain what we are feeling. This kind of empathy aids us in our communication as we consider how to relay information in a way that can best reach another person. 
  • Interpersonal empathy, also known as radical empathy or compassionate empathy, builds on understanding (cognitive) and feeling (affective) someone’s predicament, and then being moved to help. This type of empathy leads to interpersonal action-taking. 
  • Social Empathy: take radical empathy and elevate that compulsion to take action to a macro-level. This ability includes understanding people and their life situations so as to gain insight into structural inequities. This type of empathy can help make sure decisions we make (especially at the policy level) are cognizant of those who will be most directly impacted. This looks like social justice and transformation in response to systemic inequities. 


To help your students foster and practice empathy in your classrooms, consider some of the following resources:

  • Our Current Events page takes complicated, divisive topics in the news cycle and offers teaching ideas to slow down the conversation, consider multiple perspectives, and not lose sight of the ways individuals are making decisions and being impacted by decisions.
  • Our Contracting strategy is often used at the beginning of a school year or semester, but it can be something you check in on, revise, or re-emphasize from time to time. The basic idea is that you enter into a meaningful and productive exchange and collaboration with your students about the kind of environment they want to learn in. When students feel the space is safe and brave enough, they will share the kinds of stories, experiences, and opinions that can lead to empathetic understanding and connection. 


Please respond to this blog:

  • If you were at the Across Colors Diversity Conference - share about which sessions you attended and how you are thinking about or operationalizing the power of empathy at your school.
  • If you weren’t at the conference but have carried out activities or lessons on developing empathy, please share! 


This was the 13th Across Colors Diversity Conference, organized by the Independent School Alliance. The conference’s theme was Empathy First: Cultivating Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice. Viewpoint School in Calabasas hosted the event for hundreds of attendees who attended workshops intended to provide connection, perspective, and tools for transforming school communities into robust spaces of belonging.

Topics: Empathy

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