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How does one teach empathy? It is an important tool to teach kids, and it turns out that there are some discreet skills to the practice of empathy.

The first is the ability to read non-verbal communications, particularly facial expressions, which brings us to the work of Paul Ekman, Ph.D. who has been studying facial expressions across cultures for about 25 years, I believe.

Professor Ekman has worked to categorize facial expressions and has established some interesting facts, for example some facial expressions are cross cultural, like an expression of disgust or contempt.

But for our purposes, teaching empathy, we need to note that facial expressions play across our face as fast as 1/25th second, which is about 2 and 1/2 times as fast as I can blink my eyes.

At that speed, expressions are processed subconsciously, rather than consciously, but the good news is that because of our mirror neurons, we sense what the our conversational partner is experiencing and then we can ask if we are accurate in our perception, which is an incredibly important part of the trust building experience in a counselor-client relationship.

Oftentimes, just the act of listening attentively will help the other individual relax, because most of the time, what others want to have heard is their feeling about the current situation, and when they perceive they are being listened to, they relax.

However, another important part of the skill of empathy is teaching people how to relax, particularly if I am listening to a child.

Having a couple of breathing or visualization skills handy is cool, or teach the Quick Coherence tool which follows.

1. Focus on the area of your chest around your heart. (Switch from the external to the internal).

2. Breathe through your heart 10 times, and remember a positive fun time. Try to re-experience it fully.

3. Ask your heart, which has a brain of its own, and can learn and make decisions independently of your other brain, how to handle this situation less stressfully in the future.

Empathy Requires Attention to Subtle Details

According to Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi,Ph.D., author of the very interesting book FLOW, we humans can process sensory data, in other words visual data like the subtle changes in expressions discussed above, and changes in tone of voice in packets of data including up to 7 bits of data, and the shortest amount of time between packets is 1/18th second.

It takes me 1/10th second to blink my eyes, so I am processing observations of another person's emotional state very rapidly, and mostly unconsciously, unless I am trained to note how I feel as I engage in conversation with another.

A skill which really helps me to listen closely would therefore be a powerful tool in teaching empathy.

My mentor in the domestic violence field, Tony Kubicki,M.S., taught me this model a couple of decades ago, and we will call it reflective listening. When I listen carefully I can watch another who is feeling upset calm down, simply because someone is listening.

1. First, I have to make a commitment to listen, which means I neither agree nor disagree, I just listen.

2. Then, I begin to repeat their words to myself, with the intention of repeating a summarization back to them, which I do every so often. By repeating their words to myself, I am keeping myself from preparing a retort.

3. Having made a reflection back to my speaker, I ask if I have heard them accurately, and wait for their response. If they say no, I simply ask them to repeat the message to me, until they say yes, you have heard me accurately.

4. In my summarization statement, I may include an observation about the emotions I am seeing.

An example of how I might start a reflection/summary might be, " Sounds like you are feeling really angry, and you want your husband/daughter/son/wife to help out more around the house with dishes, laundry, vacuuming...Did I hear you accurately?"

You can even do reflective listening when it is your housecleaning that is being criticized. Remember, your commitment is to listen, not agree or disagree, and when you give your partner the gift of attention, the payoff in intimacy is great.

When I commit to paying attention to expressions and the emotional message in them and listening for the story line and emotions in the story line, I have gone a long way towards being empathic.

The Heartmath process will help me keep the higher perceptual centers of my brain open, while I do empathy, and empathy then becomes a heart beat by heart beat process.

Not sure you can pay attention to subtle, nuanced detail? While practice makes perfect, you can enhance your attentional skills using online brain fitness tools, especially those that train your fluid intelligence using the dual n back task. You will be amazed at how effective your short term memory becomes, and your fluid intelligence, so important in choosing which incoming data is important to pay attention to, will grow fast.

I hope you have fun learning and teaching the discreet skills on intimacy.

Michael S. Logan is a brain fitness expert, counselor, a student of Chi Gong, and a licensed one on one HeartMath provider. I enjoy the spiritual, the mythological, and psychological, and I am a late life father to Shane, 10, and Hannah Marie, 4, whose brains are so amazing. http://www.askmikethecounselor2.com

Article Source: Teach Empathy