The Need for Empathy Training

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A common understanding of the term “empathy” is that it describes the ability of a person to share and understand the feelings of another.

What is not a common understanding is whether this ability for empathy is a skill or a trait. If it is the latter, empathy as a trait implies that it is part of one’s personal character. Either you have it or you don’t. If it is the former, empathy as a skill moves into the realm of something that can be learned, nurtured, and developed.

An exploration of skill-based empathy is provided in this TedxTalk by Jamil Zaki.

Jamil Zaki identifies this new view of empathy as a trainable skill. His examples show that empathy develops and adapts at an emotional level to a specific environment. Empathy, according to Zaki, is not a natural state, and it is one that may need to be enforced in order to grow. It is hard to do and may require incentives—as he notes in the female-male approaches—for continued development. As we learn with any other skill, the more reasons we have to practice it, the more motivation we’ll have, and the better we’ll become at the process of becoming and being empathetic.

How does this type of skill development translate into our current workplaces? In the video, Zaki provides an example of empathy training for police services in the state of Washington. This type of training resulted in a proven decline in the use of force by police officers, especially in situations where they had to interact with people who experienced mental illness.

This type of empathy-based training program has been adapted within a Canadian context as well. By using virtual reality technology, Halton police services implemented an empathy training program for its officers as noted in this article.

Through situational simulations, police officers learn what it feels like to be a person in crisis who has autism, schizophrenia, or is experiencing suicidal thoughts. As the virtual experience provides the feeling of a person in crisis, police officers can better understand how to adapt their own approach to a real-life situation. With a different mindset, police officers can focus on de-escalation and the need to “minimize the stress of the person in crisis in real-life scenarios.”

It is not just the use of technology-based training that makes this approach a “game changer.” It is the repeated practice of empathy-based skills development that can truly change the world.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think empathy is a trait or a skill? Explain your rationale.
  2. Besides police services, what other types of industries or workplaces would benefit from empathy-based training?
  3. What can you do to develop your own empathy-related skills? How can you apply these skills in your current or future work environment?