Developing empathy in teens and adults

By Jennifer Bridge

 Sometimes it seems the world is going to end in a dramatic fashion. The anger and sadness in our society can at time be overwhelming unless one choses to block out the negative and focus on the positive. I recently ran across an article written by one of our extension specialist at UK, Dr. David Weisenhorn which focuses on empathy. Dr. Weisenhorn provides a unique perspective as his life experiences include serving in the military where he was assigned to Presidential detail. The article is as follows:

 Now, perhaps more than ever, we are seeing a divide in our society. We are hearing political, racial, economic, and public health topics and debates that are calling us to take a side and make a stand. While it is important to feel firmly in what we believe, it is equally important to understand and share feelings of others. That is called empathy, the ability to understand and share feelings of another. There are two common approaches to empathy in psychology: shared emotional response (affective empathy) and perspective taking (cognitive empathy).

 Affective empathy – or shared emotional response - is just what one would think. It is when you are able to share another person’s emotions. You have done this several times in your life. This is what happens when you begin to cry and feel sad when a good friend shares the passing of their grandparent. Or when you involuntarily smile as someone smiles at you.

 Cognitive empathy - or perspective taking - is more intentional in some ways as it requires you to imagine yourself in someone else’s situation and connect with how that feels.

 Like anything that you want to do well or “be good at,” empathy also takes practice and intentionality. Here are a couple ways parents and friends can help their children or peers grow in empathy.

· Modeling – A famous quote often attributed to Gandhi says, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Here is your opportunity to show the power of empathy in relationships. When you hear someone being critical of another, you can simply express what you might feel like if you were the person being criticized.

· Understanding point of view – Many times we form opinions based on the information we have readily available to us, which most of the time is limited. Understanding that one’s point of view is often based on information availability can help us understand how someone else can share a differing opinion based on the information they have. Not all news sources share the same information. (This is illustrated with the numbers 6 and 9. Depending on how you’re looking at it, the number could be a 6 or 9.)

· HEAR – This is an active listing acronym used to remind us how to listen. Halt – stop and give your full attention to the speaker. Engage with the speaker by leaning in or tilting your ear to truly listen. This is not the time to begin formulating a response. Just listen. Anticipate that you will learn something new. This reinforces intentional listening. Replay – rephrase what you have heard and understand to clearly communicate what you received from the speaker.

 Remember this is a practice. The more you are aware of your own feelings and thoughts the more you will be able to understand and share in the feelings of others.

 Resource: Wilson, D., & Conyers, M. (2017). 4 proven strategies for teaching empathy. George Lucas Educational Foundation. Retrieved from

 Source: David A. Weisenhorn, Senior Extension Specialist for Parenting and Child Development, University of Kentucky; College of Agriculture, Food and Environment

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