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?

Building Experience Into Learning

In our study of training and development, there are multiple theories about adult learning.

We know that adults learn differently from children. This does not mean, however, that adult learning cannot be fun. Fun comes in many different formats.

What is (usually) not fun is a training session that is boring, disengaging, and ends up being a waste of valuable time.

This is where experiential learning can come into play. In order to counter the negative experiences of one way, lecture-based training sessions, experiential learning provides for participation and engagement on the part of the learners. Adult learning happens best when participants in training sessions are able to put into action real-life scenarios that are linked directly to their work life experiences.

The advantages and disadvantages of experiential training sessions are explored in a recent post found on

Click here to read the post.

As noted, good training programs allow the participants to ‘feel, taste, and experience’ that which they are there to learn. Experiential learning can go beyond the simple exercise of a role play when it builds on the actual internal individual reactions and responses to a given situation. That which adult learners experience, adult learners are able to remember, recall, and put into practice when the situation happens ‘for real’ in the future.

Experiential learning as discussed in our textbook and in the aforementioned post through David Kolb’s theories about learning styles, is not a singular approach. Kolb’s theories rely on a variety of individual approaches to learning and reinforce the need for including different experiential techniques or components into adult training modules.

Click here to access the article on Kolb’s learning styles.

Given that individuals learn differently, we need to ensure that different approaches are used when training programs are designed. Based on Kolb’s theories, not everyone will learn from a single group work activity during a training session, nor will everyone learn from a single training simulation, like a role play. Rather than designing a training program based on only one technique, it seems appropriate to use a variety of techniques in order to build the capacity for experiential learning for everyone.

It also builds the capacity for adult learners to have some fun.

Discussion Questions:

  1. As the HR leader for corporate training and development, how will you build Kolb’s experiential learning cycle into a customer service training module for tellers in a bank?
  2. Thinking about your own learning experiences; identify a course or a program that used experiential learning as the primary mode of training for the participants. How did it impact your own learning?
  3. How does experiential learning increase the development of ‘soft skills’ as noted in the article?