The importance of developing empathy

Rashmi Sirdeshpande is the author of We’ve Got This! Six Steps to Build Empathy and Miranda McKearney is a founder and director of Empathy Lab. In this episode, they talk about the science behind empathy and ways to develop it with young people.

An extended version of video version of this talk is available on our website.



Interview Transcript

We’ve Got This

Nikki Gamble

Hello everyone. In the reading corner today, we have a special edition because we’re talking about empathy, and we’re also talking about a special book that was recently published called We’ve Got This.

To help me explore this idea that is so crucial to education, I have with me the writer of the book Rashmi Sirdeshpande and Miranda McKearney, the founder of Empathy Lab.

Empathy Lab hasn’t been going that long in terms of an organisation’s lifespan, and yet it has done an incredible amount of work. And I think every school I visit knows of the work of Empathy Lab, which is a brilliant achievement.

Welcome, both of you,

I am going to start with you, Miranda. You had been working at the Reading Agency, and then you moved on, set up this new organisation. What was in your mind at that point? Did you know that this was needed?

Miranda McKearney:

I thought I was retiring, and I was going to go trekking, but I’d been fascinated by this emerging body of scientific research, that reading builds empathy. I never really had time to delve into it because I was too busy doing the risk strategy.

And when I stopped, three other people who are now directors of Empathy Lab with me decided to explore the research and the implications of that research. We held a great big thinking at the Royal Festival Hall, and we invited a wonderful cross-disciplinary audience. We asked whether society and the education system were making enough of this very powerful, very interesting link between empathy and reading. And basically, everybody said, ‘No! Go forth and do things.’

This was in 2014. The need then was very much around the emergence of social media and the cruelty that social media was enabling, and teachers were very worried about that. And they were also very worried about a high-stress education system that was emphasising the success of the individual.

And they felt that often everything was about ‘me’, and not about ‘we’. And they were fascinated by the idea that they could use the tools they’re already so heavily and wonderfully using, books, literature, stories, and authors, to get a double win and build this key skill of empathy.

And since then, if you reflect now on post-pandemic needs, there are terrifying reports about the effect on social and emotional skills, mental health and behaviour. I’m sure you, like us, are hearing lots of anecdotal reports of real difficulties with children finding it hard to settle and name and share their emotions.

And then, of course, the world has its problems with the war and climate change which children are facing. And there’s an increasingly polarised, divided public discourse. So, I think each year, we reflect on the need and the research underpinning the need. And each year, I seem to say it’s more urgent than ever. But that’s what it feels like to me right now.

Nikki Gamble:

If reading is such a fantastic mechanism or tool for developing empathy, is the answer just to read more?

Miranda McKearney:

 You always ask the best questions, Nikki.

Obviously, the answer is to read. But for a lot of the work that we do, we’ve developed a schools’ programme from the bottom up, and now offer a year’s support to SLTs and whole schools in integrating teaching with a much sharper empathy focus.

It is very much about a shift of focus. Taking what you’re already doing in a school but thinking about a more deliberate focus on empathy and using the books differently. Subtly differently, often. The difference it makes is by focusing on the character and feelings more than the plot or the mechanisms of the book. It’s about keeping within the safety of the story, letting the book do the heavy lifting.

We have a set of criteria by which we select our annual Read for Empathy collection, and we share those. So yes, more reading, but thinking about using reading and book talk to build community differently. And then focusing on action. There’s no point learning about empathy or using books to build it, if you’re not going to change something. So, a lot of our work is about putting empathy into action.

Empathy Day culminates in that through our Empathy Resolution strand.

Nikki Gamble:

I think it’s important to think about that with some rigour, as you obviously do. We know if we look back in history, there have been great readers amongst leaders who haven’t necessarily been empathic in the way they’ve treated other people. I think what you’re saying about the book talk and the relationship that you have with books and other readers is crucial.

Miranda McKearney:

A lot of the reading pleasure techniques base that, for instance, on a shared read-aloud book, which I know you are big on, Nikki. If you look at that through an empathy lens, it’s interesting because, of course, you get such insights into other people from their different experiences of the book.

And by sharing those experiences, very honestly, you build community.

Nikki Gamble:

Rashmi, you’re the author of this wonderful book. And you’ve done an incredible job. You’ve included all the complexity, and you’ve kept it relatable as well.

First, it would be good to know exactly what empathy is and what empathy isn’t.

Rashmi Sirdeshpande:

Empathy is being able to experience and understand other people’s emotions and their points of view. And we were talking about perspective taking, understanding points of view, even if they’re very different to our own.

It’s so interesting because when you’re reading a thriller, and you’ve got a character who’s really going through it, and you’re turning the pages, and your heart’s pounding alongside them, you’re not in that book. You’re cosy in your room reading this story. It’s completely removed from you, but you can feel some of what they’re feeling. It’s the most fascinating thing that happens to us.

It happens when we’re talking to a good friend, and they might be feeling sad about something, and even very little children can relate to this when they say, my friend’s really upset about something, and I actually felt something inside me too. And that is that beautiful experiential part of empathy.

There are different parts of empathy, and we use them all at different times. So sometimes we’re doing more feeling. Sometimes, we’re doing more thinking, and sometimes we’re acting on it.

But in terms of what empathy isn’t, we wanted to be clear in this book about that. Empathy often gets confused with sympathy, doesn’t it? But sympathy is completely different. Sympathy separates us from people. So you have to be standing over here to feel sorry for someone. It’s almost looking down on them. Whereas empathy is being right there beside them with them, every step, feeling what they feel. And you’re looking at the world through their eyes, feeling what they feel. It’s a very different thing to feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is that glue that brings us closer together.

It isn’t the same as kindness. We talk about it being the seed of kindness. It’s very often where kindness begins because you understand someone. You understand what it is that they’re going through. And then you might understand what it is that they need. And from that, an act of kindness might blossom, but it’s not just for the sake of doing a nice thing, being a good person, it’s actually coming from that core of empathy, where you’re doing something that you know will help this person because you understand them and you’ve connected at a different level.

It’s a beautiful thing.

Nikki Gamble:

It’s not being a saviour.

Rashmi Sirdeshpande:

Sometimes it’s just listening. I don’t know about you, but I find sometimes I’m rushing in to say something because the silence is a bit awkward. Sometimes, what we really need from people is for them just to be there. And that’s being a good friend in the way that people with pets will recognise. And they’ll say they’re feeling sick, and their dog is just there. Their presence is it’s so solid and reassuring. And children can be that friend to their friends too. The one that’s literally just right there with.

Nikki Gamble:

It strikes me that it’s easy to feel empathy with some people, and with others, it might be harder. They might have values that are very different from ours. They might not appear to be very nice people, but if we’re developing empathy, it’s about trying to understand the most difficult to reach, as well as those that, on the surface, look as though they are worthy of our empathy. Is that something you address as well?

Rashmi Sirdeshpande:

 It is, yes.

Miranda McKearney:

We worked very closely with psychologists at the beginning of Empathy Lab to be sure we’d got it right because most of us have a book background, not a psychology background. And they’re very interested in this difference. We find it easy to relate to and empathise with our in-group but much more difficult to our out-group. And so, a lot of our work around reading and the choices of books about maybe people who you know, children may not have experienced travellers, refugees, people with very different life stories, is about trying to expand the in-group so that you feel much more connected to a much wider range of people.

Psychologists talk about the cognitive aspect of empathy being made up of imagination and reason. So, bringing all that to bear to understand people who aren’t like you. Reading is just so powerful for that.

Nikki Gamble:

Rashmi, you’re given the task of writing this book. I’m sure you weren’t daunted because you’re such a wonderful writer, but you are writing this for a younger readership. So, how did you make that relatable for them?

Rashmi Sirdeshpande:

So, this book was a collaboration. Empathy Lab gave me their research around empathy and some insights they’d gathered from schools. And I just looked at it as this huge pile of treasure. To sift through and with my children’s authorly eyes, When I saw something that was juicy and exciting, and I could imagine a child talking about that with someone, I grabbed it, and I said, this is going in the book.

And in terms of turning the science into something accessible, Miranda very kindly allowed me to use my favourite tone for writing books, which is the conversational tone. The book is a conversation with the reader. It’s not patronising; it’s not overly distant and cold. It’s warm and conversational. So, I’m chatting with the reader about this cool thing everyone should know.

Pulling the science into this was easy because it’s fascinating. The difficult bit was using the language that a reader would understand. And it took a few attempts at playing with things. We had a great copy editor who is also a sensitivity reader. And she would challenge absolutely everything. And she would say, look, is this language as inclusive as it could be? Is this as clear as it could be?

Nikki Gamble:

And you’ve used the device of having a family throughout the book. 

Rashmi Sirdeshpande:

Again, to make it relatable and for children to see what a grownup might be going through. One scene sticks in my head about the family about to go out, and it’s chucking it down with rain. And just there, you can see how taking different perspectives can work because the mum has just had her hair done, and she’s thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t want to be stepping out in this’. The little one’s just, ‘Yes!’ because it’s exciting rain.

Nikki Gamble:

You have mentioned the science already, but did you have to limit what you wrote about? Miranda, you must have a wealth of scientific background, research papers, and advisors. You obviously can’t put all of that into the book.

Miranda McKearney:

 No, and honestly, it’s changing so fast as well. It’s almost a full-time job keeping up with the most extraordinary volume of research on empathy in different disciplines.

Basically, we try to boil it down to the two research pillars that all of Empathy Lab’s work is built on.

One is that empathy is learnable and grows the more you use it. And I think that’s important, challenging, and exciting because I think many people think you’re just born empathetic, or you’re not. Only 10 per cent of our empathic ability is genetic. So, it’s learnable, it’s malleable.

And then the other is this body of research about this extraordinary tool of books that we have at our fingertips – the science and research of what happens in your brain when you read.

Nikki Gamble:

I loved the writing and the pacing of the book. So, if we’ve had a particularly intense section, it’s broken up with a nice, full page with a bright yellow background and a quotation from a famous author, giving us pause to think and reflect. Tell us about some of those quotations.

Rashmi Sirdeshpande:

They’re amazing, aren’t they? So many well-loved children’s authors, poets and illustrators. I still can’t believe the people we have contributing to this, but it just shows what a movement this is among children’s authors and illustrators.

Nikki Gamble:

Do we have a couple that are easy to hand that we could read? I think Cressida Cowell is the first in the book.

Rashmi Sirdeshpande:

She is the first in the book. She says, ‘Reading gives you three magical powers: creativity, intelligence, and empathy. Empathy is, in many ways, the most important because it is the one that links you to your community.

Miranda McKearney:

Nadia Shireen, I love hers. Books can be maps that help us navigate some of the most tricky emotional places.

Rashmi Sirdeshpande:

And Malorie Blackman, sorry, now you’ve started us, we won’t stop. At the end of her quote, she says, Reading is such a wonderful way to bring people together in a world that increasingly seeks to build walls and barriers between us. And we talk about this all the time, breaking down barriers, connecting us. In what feels like an increasingly divided world, and what could be more important than that?

Nikki Gamble:

Now, I noticed that you haven’t left the adults out. There is a section at the back of the book, a guide for adults. I am interested in why you thought it was necessary because, adults are going to get a lot from reading the children’s part of this book.

Rashmi Sirdeshpande:

So, if the adults decide they’re not going to read the book and they skip to the guide for grownups, they’ll hopefully then be encouraged to read the whole thing anyway. But in very straightforward terms, it explains the science again, very crisply. We can go to a higher level with this. We can talk hard-hitting politics because we’re talking to grownups here. And we can say this is something that will touch on every aspect of children’s lives, from their relationships to their well-being, even their performance at school and their performance in the future world of work.

 Also, to talk about how adults might decide to share books with children, talking about books with an empathy focus, wondering what the characters were thinking about what they were going through, and the challenges they overcame.

Explaining that to grown-ups who may have previously thought of reading as an activity that children do. And maybe discussing books because the school said we need to check comprehension and now saying let’s really understand and use this to build empathy.

Nikki Gamble:

I want to say that this book is a lot of fun, and it’s packed with some great activities. One of them is creating your own empathy glasses. 

I loved the rewrite of a newspaper article to make the news more empathetic because news can be so negative and damaging. Tell us about some of the other activities.

Miranda McKearney:

 I should say that they’ve all come from things we’ve already done and tried. So the news one was an idea of my fellow founder, Sarah Mears, who often writes the family packs.

There’s a body mirroring exercise that author Jo Cottrell came up with for one Empathy Day. There are empathy walks, the idea of going out into your community with your empathy lenses on and thinking about suspending your judgement and instead, thinking about your community and where more empathy would help.

 Rashmi, why don’t you explain the empathy resolutions bit?

Rashmi Sirdeshpande:

Oh, that’s the jewel in the crown of everything, isn’t it? The empathy resolution is a promise to turn empathy into action in our everyday lives.

This is an activity that we do every Empathy Day. We say you’ve read all these books, you’ve developed your empathy superpower, and now let’s really promise to use it. It’s okay if you change your mind about your resolution. You can tweak it as the year goes on because you think you could make it stronger. We encourage children to check in and say, how am I getting on with this resolution? And it’s okay if the truth is you forgot or the truth is you’re struggling with it.  The important thing is having that promise at the forefront of your mind to say, ‘I’m going to commit to this. I’m going to use empathy in my life.

And we’ve got some beautiful examples from children in the book. Here’s one that says: My empathy resolution is to be kind to everyone I meet. They may be going through a tough time because you never know what’s really going on with people.

And here’s another one that says my empathy resolution is to support my friends when they’re going through a hard time by just being there for them. Sometimes, all people need is someone around them who they can talk to and trust. I want to try and be that person.

Miranda McKearney:

We introduced a new thing called Empathy Action Month in November, which is now part of Empathy Lab’s portfolio as a sort of midpoint in the year for children, schools and families to reflect on any resolutions they might have made,

Nikki Gamble:

A personal question for both of you. I’m sure you’ve always been deeply empathic people; you wouldn’t have gone down this route if you weren’t, but has this project changed you in any way?

Rashmi Sirdeshpande:

Yes, absolutely. It’s about that deliberate practice of empathy, I think. And especially in those tricky situations that you mentioned earlier, when it comes to someone who perhaps you don’t agree with, perhaps you strongly disagree with, someone who’s being quite mean, who seems to be being completely unreasonable, comes from a completely different world.

This has really focused my mind to say, let’s deliberately use empathy here. And if the feeling part is a little tricky right now, let me use the thinking element and think it through and say, why do they feel the way they do? Why do they believe this? What is their worldview? And when you do that, I found that even in situations where I completely disagree with someone, I can find the humanity in another person.

And soldiers have talked about this at war, where they can find humanity in the other side using empathy. It’s not impossible. And it doesn’t mean that you don’t have to call someone out when they’re doing something mean. We talk about this very directly in the book.

Miranda McKearney

That’s beautiful, Rashmi.

For me, the thing that’s really resonating is that in our training, we do quite a lot around listening because it’s such a key aspect of empathy.

We have a listening audit where we break down the different bits of what makes up a great listener. And I reflect all the time on how rubbish I am at the one at the end, which is about giving advice. Working on this has really made me think hard about how I listen and try to be much better at listening.

Nikki Gamble

 Miranda, you know how passionate I am about nonfiction.

Very often, when people talk about empathy and reading, they talk about fiction, stepping inside the shoes of a character, which, of course, is really important. But I do believe that a good nonfiction writer, I’m thinking about all of Nicola Davies’s books, for instance, develops empathy too.

Miranda McKearney

I completely agree with you. Because what we do is research-based as far as we can. We have emphasised the fiction, the character, and the feelings because that’s what the current research is focused on. It’s not a complete evidence base yet, and we’re working with the University of Sussex to deepen that research, which, is largely about the effect of fiction on children’s affective and cognitive empathy. But, yes, of course, just because there isn’t a scientific evidence base about it, doesn’t mean that nonfiction isn’t empathy-building.

I think of Nicola’s Book of the Sea, for instance, the way she talks about the creatures of the sea so that you really feel a relationship with them. And Rashmi’s book, How to Change the World, is a kind of campaigning non-fiction book, and autobiographies and biographies, which really help you understand what a sports person might have gone through. I am completely with you, Nikki.

Rashmi Sirdeshpande

And we put that in the book as well. There’s a whole shout-out on how it’s not just fiction, it’s also nonfiction, it’s also art, and it’s also poetry.

Nikki Gamble

And you mention film and theatre too.

This book is going to help a lot of children, and young people understand what empathy is. But it’s also important, that their learning environment is empathetic to them as well. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Miranda McKearney

Yes, and much of the work we’ve done with our psychology partner, Professor Robin Banerjee, is about whole school culture and modelling empathy. I remember being struck by two things at the beginning of working with Robin.

One that children with poor empathy skills just haven’t had it modelled, and haven’t had the chance to develop it. So, school is an incredibly important second chance. And if they’re surrounded by anchoring empathetic adults because empathy is learnable, and our brains are malleable, they will have a chance to develop those skills.

And the other thing he talks about is that It’s not either or. You don’t have to choose between focusing on a body of knowledge and traditional academic subjects. Schools are social places, and children will not be able to learn unless they have relationships that help them feel safe enough to learn.

We’ve been doing a lot of interesting work on what an empathetic transition looks like. Thinking about what taking empathy seriously means and what does it do to your values and the school development plan, and your policies?

Rashmi Sirdeshpande

I was speaking to a teacher the other day about this book, and she raised something interesting, which is that empathy makes such a difference to learning in the classroom because you’re changing classroom culture, not just the relationships on the playground, but in class, too. You’re in a history lesson, and someone wants to put their hand up, but they’re unsure what they have to say is correct. If they’re in a classroom where the culture is empathetic, then they can put their hands up and, with confidence, say that thing, knowing that people are going to listen to their point of view. And that changes everything; it transforms learning.

Nikki Gamble

 And leadership needs to take account of it, too.

Miranda McKearney

I think it is worth saying that in Wales, the new curriculum has a focus on health and wellbeing. Empathy appears in the curriculum documentation 35 times.

And the Scottish curriculum has a big emphasis on social-emotional learning.

Nikki Gamble

What do we know about international comparisons?

All sorts of fascinating things. In Canada, the best-known empathy education program is Roots of Empathy, which uses a baby. So they have a series of classes bringing real babies from the community in for young children to learn and reflect on a baby’s emotions – how the baby’s brains are building. Mary Gordon started that in Canada, and there’s a version of it in England now.

And then various empathy programs that focus particularly on film.

In certain American schools, empathy is taught explicitly.

As far as we’ve determined, we’re the only organization internationally, I think, really drilling down on the literature.

Nikki Gamble

Fabulous. Thank you so much for joining me today. I feel that we could have talked for another hour and still not have covered everything. So Rashmi, Miranda. It’s been a pleasure to have you in the reading corner.

Miranda McKearney

The thanks are ours.

About We’ve Got This
We’ve Got This! Six Steps to Build Your Empathy Superpower, written by Rashmi Sirdeshpande in partnership with EmpathyLab, is the essential empathy handbook for young readers. In just SIX simple steps, readers will be taught how to harness empathy as their human SUPERPOWER, and discover how using this power can change their lives and the world around them for the better. The emotional well-being of children is just as important as their physical health, but it’s not something that all children are taught about or are offered support for.

Harnessing empathy and growing their emotional intelligence allows children and young people to develop the resilience to cope with life’s ups and downs and understand and experience other people’s emotions, feelings and points of view.