Empathy Day (June 11th 2019) is a call to action to explore books which can help develop the skill of empathy. In this current climate of change in the U.K. it is more important than ever that our young people are able to understand situations from different perspectives, not just their own.
Its organisers, EmpathyLab, are calling on people to:
READ – because stories and book characters build our real-life empathy
CONNECT – make new connections with people, inspired by sharing stories
DO – put empathy into action and make a difference in your home and your community.
Today I’m hosting the author of ‘The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle,’ Victoria Williamson who is going to tell us about how an experience she had during a school visit taught her to actively listen to what a child was saying as opposed to simply hearing the words said.
‘Empathy – The Difference Between Hearing and Listening to Others’ by Victoria Williamson.
It’s my privilege to take part in this year’s EmpathyLab blog tour, celebrating Empathy Day and the contribution that literature can make to building bridges of understanding in an increasingly divided world. Stories are at the heart of empathy – they help us make sense of the world, communicate our experiences to others, and understand the thoughts and feelings that other people, however different, may have. I’d like to share the real life story of a recent incident that made me think a little deeper about the importance of empathy.
On my visits to schools to discuss the refugee issues in my novel, ‘The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle,’ I often give pupils the following activity:
Imagine you are a refugee from Syria, and you have to travel across Europe to find a new home here. If you only had a short time to pack to escape the war, and could only carry five items, which of these twenty items would you bring and why?
On one memorable visit when I was discussing these items with a class, I heard a group arguing, and went over to find three members of the group complaining that the fourth, a ten-year-old boy, wasn’t ‘doing the activity properly’. The rest of the group had picked five of the most popular items – the passport, mobile phone, food, water and money, but the fourth boy was insisting on taking the matches, and several other items which weren’t on the list, including a knife.
When I asked the reasons for his choices, he said that matches were needed to ‘build a fire in the jungle’, and the knife and other items he’d added to the list were needed for ’killing animals in the jungle for food and building a shelter.’ Thinking he hadn’t understood the task properly, I explained the type of terrain between Syria and Western Europe that refugees would be crossing. The rest of the group helpfully chipped in with, ‘Yeah, there aren’t any wild animals to hunt there’, and, ‘There aren’t any jungles in Europe’, until the boy gave up and agreed to the rest of the group’s choices. Just as I was moving on to another group, I heard him say quietly, “But that’s what I took.”
That one phrase made me pause. He hadn’t said, “That’s what I would take,” and I realised there was something important that I’d missed. I went back and asked him to tell me more, and when I actually listened, rather than trying to explain the task to him, I discovered that his family were themselves refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and as a young toddler, the boy remembered spending several nights hiding in the jungle to escape the fighting. Instead of putting himself in the shoes of an imaginary refugee from Syria trekking across Europe, he was trying to complete the activity using his own lived experience as a refugee. Only the rest of us hadn’t been listening to him.
When I then opened up the discussion to include the children’s real life experiences, he shared his story with the class, leading us all to a far more nuanced and personal understanding of what leaving home with only a few items might be like.
That visit got me thinking about how often we hear other people’s words, without really listening to what they’re saying.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines hearing* as: ‘the process, function, or power of perceiving sound; specifically: the special sense by which noises and tones are received as stimuli.’
On the other hand, it defines listening** as: ‘to pay attention to sound; to hear something with thoughtful attention;’ and to ‘give consideration.’
In order to empathise fully with the experiences of others, we have to first listen to them telling us their stories in their own words. One reason why reading is so important for building empathy, is that it helps us to listen to a character’s point of view without allowing us the chance to interrupt, or insert ourown voice and opinions over the top of theirs, as we so often do in real life. This is why encouraging children to read stories about diverse characters whose real life experiences are different to their own is a vital foundation block in building empathy skills, which can then be transferred to children’s real life conversations and encounters.
The Read for Empathy Guide which the EmpathyLab compiles each year, features books which have been specially selected to strengthen children’s empathy skills and inspire them to put empathy into action in their communities. If children listen carefully as they read some of the books on the list, they might just discover a voice that strikes a chord of empathy they’ve never heard before:
Thank you Victoria for that very interesting post. I think as parents, teachers, or anybody else who works with children, it can be very easy to hear but not listen. Pushed for time, with our own agendas to accomplish and other children to talk to, it can be all too easy to. It really hear what someone is trying to tell you. I think it is an impatient lesson for everyone just to talk the time to actual pause and reflect on what is being said to you. You just never know what you might actually hear.
Please do make sure you visit the other stops on the blog tour to hear from all the other authors involved in this wonderful initiate and take a look at this year’s booklist to think about how you could use some of the suggested titles to develop empathy in the children you see on a regular basis.