May, 5, 1994
James A. Burruss, Haygroup-Boston & The Algebra Project INC.
Accurate Empathy: Overview
Accurate Empathy is the ability to understand and respond effectively to the concerns of others. Empathic Understanding involves active listening and attending to understand, not only the content, but also the meaning and feeling associated with the content of what the other person is communicating. This applies to both verbal and nonverbal expressions (i.e., inflections, intonations, facial gestures).
Empathic Responsiveness involves responding to the other person in a way that communicates that understanding. Frequently this is accomplished through paraphrasing and restatements. This can also be accomplished through nonverbal gestures and tension relieving humor. Most often it requires occasional checking in with the person to confirm the accuracy of one’s understanding and the appropriateness of one’s response.
ETIOLOGY: Where Does It Come From
Accurate Empathy grows out of experiences that require individuals to “put themselves in the shoes of another person.” In other words, our sensitivity to the meaning and feelings of events for another person is enhanced by situations that require us to understand the context of another person’s experience. So, for example, a mother might understand that a particular event is frightening for her child simply because it is reminiscent of a previous experience.
Accurate Empathy is accelerated by social education (e.g., the parent who encourages a child to consider the feelings of another person). This kind of instruction alerts the person to opportunities to practice the competency. Specific feedback and encouragement help us to refine our skills in this area ( e.g., “Remember when someone was tickling you and you wanted them to stop but they wouldn’t? Maybe she might feel like that too.”).
Finally, Accurate Empathy is potentially enhanced by circumstances in one’s own life that are similar, but not identical, to those of the other person. So, for example, it is potentially easier to understand the hurt and rejection that someone might feel at being excluded from an activity, if you have experienced similar circumstances yourself. However, while similar experiences can provide the basis for Empathic Understanding, they can also interfere with your ability to understand another person’s experience as being separate from your own.
The most obvious obstacle to Accurate Empathy is language. It is difficult to understand the concerns of another person if you can’t decipher their primary modes of expression. This applies not only to their formal, structured language, but also to their informal and nonverbal expressions. Even when you know the language, you still have to be sensitive to the idiosyncratic ways that individuals have of expressing themselves in that language.
The second most common obstacle is our willingness, ability, and opportunity to listen. Empathic Understanding requires concentrated effort. It requires patience. It requires enough interest in the other person to probe and otherwise initiate efforts to get the person to elaborate on their thoughts, feelings, and values. It requires an allocation of space and time devoted to that person. That kind of concentration is difficult if one is preoccupied with one’s own lesson plan, distracted by other thoughts or classroom activity, or just too tired to focus or sustain the required attention.
Probably the least conscious obstacle to Accurate Empathy is our tendency to project our own perceptions, feelings, and/or experiences on to others. We assume that we know how the other person is feeling because we have been there ourselves. We imagine what that person’s is experiencing because of our own perceptual filters about that person. We cut them off prematurely because we presume that we understand what they are about to say. Sometimes these assumptions are on target. Unfortunately, however, quite often they are not.
Accurate Empathy can be developed through monitored practice and feedback. Situations that allow you to check your understanding with the person you’re listening to, are particularly useful. Also, reviewing situations with an objective third party helps to refine the accuracy of your judgments.
Conceptual Flexibility: Overview
Conceptual Flexibility is the ability to make practical applications of abstract principles and using one’s immediate experience to create new conceptual models of how things work. Someone demonstrating this competency tends to use very clear, spontaneous examples to illustrate a concept. They are also able to observe several discrete events and quickly recognize common patterns and causal relationships in those patterns. Consequently they are very good at learning from their experiences and being able to explain fairly complex principles in everyday language.
ETIOLOGY: Where Does It Come From
Conceptual flexibility is clearly enhanced by formal education, particularly the kinds of assignments that require looking for themes in data. For example, liberal arts majors tend to develop fairly good skills at thematic analysis because of the nature of their training at the college level. However, if that training is limited to written material such as novels and history books, the skill is less likely to generalize to seeing patterns in their own experiences.
Those people who seem to be particularly high in conceptual flexibility have had occasions to practice looking for patterns in both abstract data as well as in their everyday lives. For example, student teachers are better able to see the practical application of what they are learning in their own studies once they are engaged in a practical experience.
One of the greatest obstacles to conceptual flexibility is habit. Once you establish a pattern of thinking or problem solving that works for you, there is a very natural tendency to continue using that strategy until it doesn’t work anymore. If the kind of situations that you are exposed to reinforce a particular kind of problem-solving you can easily begin to adopt an automatic approach even though the situation has changed.
Another obstacle is the tendency to treat knowledge as conclusive rather than tentative and conditional. There is some natural inclination to think in terms of the right approach to a problem rather than appreciating the merit of several different ways exploring our environment and understanding how it works.
Finally there is a tendency to assume that others learn the same way that you do. For example, you may prefer to learn by starting with a concept and then applying that concept to some very challenging, practical problems. This may make you somewhat impatient with someone who wants to reflect on a situation from many different perspectives as their way of understanding their environment. Much of effective teaching is appreciating the variety of ways in which a person comes to know something.
The best way to develop Conceptual Flexibility is through practice. In particular, the more you engage in situations that require using a wide range of learning styles, the easier it will be to fit your teaching style to the needs of your students.
Cultural Sensitivity: Overview
Cultural Sensitivity is the ability to appreciate and respect the norms of another person or culture even though you do not agree with them. This competency is especially necessary in the teaching and helping professions because the very nature of your task is to challenge conventional ways of thinking and behaving. Effective teachers challenge a person to change their behavior or to explore new ways of looking at their world. They are effective at doing this because they continue to respect the value of the current norms for that person.
People who demonstrate a lot of cultural sensitivity can be likened to the good guest that you look forward to seeing again. They make good company because they bring a different perspective to the way you typically live and think about the world. Still they are welcome because they respect and appreciate the basis for your way of thinking and acting. Thus, their attempts to challenge your views are taken more as a positive concern than as a hostile threat.
ETIOLOGY: Where Does It Come From
Cultural Sensitivity seems to develop from a combination of ( 1.) exposure to people of different cultures and (2.) social education that encourage you to respect and appreciate the basis for those differences. This is particularly true when the individual is going through a stage of establishing their own identity. This tends to begin around ages 3-5 but is repeated at various levels of intensity throughout our adult lives.
One of the biggest obstacles to cultural sensitivity is social education that places a positive or negative value on differences between people. Such instruction early in life leaves us inclined to be evaluative of differences rather than appreciating them.
Cultural Sensitivity can be developed by exposure to others in a non evaluative environment. Candid discussion of your mutual perceptions can help develop greater appreciation for the value of differences.