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Collaborative problem solving for community safety
Collaborative problem solving for community safety

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3.4 Steps to building empathy

Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, asserted that we should ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood’ (2004, p.235). This is all well and good, but how do we break this down to make it something we can take action on?

A key element of empathy is developing your emotional intelligence. In his book Emotional Intelligence (1998), Daniel Goleman defined it as: ‘the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships’. Goleman summarises the key elements of emotional intelligence as follows:

  • Self-Awareness: emotional self-awareness, accurate self-assessment, self-confidence.
  • Social Awareness: empathy, organisational awareness, service orientation.
  • Self-Management: self-control, trustworthiness, conscientiousness, adaptability, achievement orientation, initiative.
  • Social Skills: developing others, leadership, influence, communication, change catalyst, conflict management, building bonds, teamwork.

Each of these can be developed in order to strengthen our emotional intelligence and empathy, which jointly could perhaps be called our ‘emotional literacy’. The simple steps to enhancing your emotional literacy would include:

Activity 5 Practising emotion recognition

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes for this activity.

Think of an example when you remember noticing somebody’s body language. Describe it in your learning journal, followed by what emotional state or personal trait they revealed. Then think of an occasion when your own body language could have been interpreted by others, write it down in the same way.

For example:

  • John kept looking down and touching his forehead when he was speaking to Ben (his boss).

    He felt insecure and subconsciously wanted to hide his eyes or maybe reassure himself that he was thinking straight.

  • I folded my arms when Jane was gossiping at the bus stop.

    I didn’t agree with what Jane was saying. By folding my arms maybe I was creating a barrier between us and I showed I was uncomfortable.

Over the next few weeks, continue to make notes about both your own and other people’s body language and what it reveals. Your general awareness will be heightened, and you might find you are able to interact more sensitively with others as a result.