A while back, as we were doing copywork in Writing with Ease, we came across an excerpt from A Child’s Geography of the World. V. M. Hillyer’s writing was so rich and vivid, that I decided to use the passage for a lesson on perspective.
I read the passage several times aloud. Then Joseph, Molly, and I each drew a picture of what we heard described. Afterward we compared pictures and explained why we drew what we drew.
As you might expect, we listened to the same exact words but all of our pictures were different.
The kids were very surprised to see that all the pictures did not look exactly alike. Molly drew Earth in it’s entirety, I drew half of it, and Joseph drew only a volcano. Talking about those differences allowed us to understand the passage from other points of view and to see what each of us valued about it.
Empathy – – to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – – is an invaluable skill. It provides the “why”, as opposed to just the “what” of others’ actions. It lubricates relationships with people who a different from us, helps us communicate with one another, and adds nuance to our thinking about morality and ethics.
But, even if you don’t care about understanding others or living an ethical life, you should care about empathy.
There’s good evidence that “soft” skills like empathy improve “hard” skills like (testable) performance in math and reading.
The business community has begun to identify empathy as one of the key ingredients of corporate excellence, whether in overall corporate culture or personal leadership. Study after study shows that listening is critical to leadership effectiveness and that listeners listen best with they exhibit genuine empathy for other people’s perspectives. So, maybe empathy is the most powerful leadership tool?