Empathy Can Sneak Up On You!

“If we want people to fully show up, to bring their whole selves including their unarmored, whole hearts—so that we can innovate, solve problems, and serve people—we have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard, and respected.”

― Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.

A while back I received an email from a 3rd grade teacher asking me to help her and the music teacher develop an integrated design thinking challenge for the class that would meet both ELA standards and music class objectives. During our meeting, we decided to focus on the topic of JOY.

How might we provide joy to our 5th grade buddies
through an original music composition?

We outlined a plan, and I left the teachers to work their magic.

Today I met with the two teachers because they wanted to discuss how to help 3rd graders empathy map. As the classroom teacher recapped about the experiences thus far, I realized that something far more powerful than just design thinking had already taken place.

As part of the empathy and define process of this challenge, students developed a definition of joy, through their own experiences as well as by interviewing 5th grade students and their parents. The 3rd graders quickly noticed some trends arising in the responses received – many noted happiness; an absence of sadness; and feelings of peace.

When asked what brings people joy, parents shared moments like seeing family after a business trip, or hearing the laughter of their children.

But for one third grader, the answer was very different: not being hated.

Post-It that says "not being hated"


What do you do with an answer like that? For this teacher, she tackled it head on. She asked the class, “Have you ever felt hated in this classroom?” Because she had created a safe place for them to share, a few did share moments when a peer situation made them feel less than loved…hated, even.

Reflecting on the situation, the teacher shared that, even if their musical projects don’t turn out as well as she wants them to, this project is a success because it opened her eyes to the depth of feelings these kiddos have, the complexities of their lives at such a young age, and her need to continue with social-emotional lessons.

That’s the thing about empathy… it can catch you when you least expect it. It doesn’t require an empathy map template or a Post-It. It requires an open heart and a receptive ear, and the capacity to be vulnerable so that you are open to the experiences of others.

I’m always grateful to the teachers that take these risks for our students, and even more grateful when they share their learning with me. It reminds me of how valuable our role is, and how important these authentic moments are to both students and adults.

Humble thanks.

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