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With empathy, we are able to empathize with the child or young person and we learn and understand their needs, motives and feelings. Likewise, empathy enables us in conflict situations, whether with ourselves or others. We can help the child to identify his own feelings, what needs are hidden underneath and how to arrive at a solution to the conflict. For youth workers that means: taking the time, active listening and Emotional Intelligence.

Sensitivity for the youth worker means: making time, being able to listen and demonstrate emotional intelligence.
Sensitivity for the youth worker means: making time, being able to
listen and demonstrate emotional intelligence.
©: alephnull - Fotolia

What do we do when we are really feeling down? Correct: We are looking for familiar people to talk it all over, sometimes to cry on their shoulders. The famous strong shoulder to cry on. What distinguishes a person that from others? He has a great deal of empathy.

Exactly what is empathy?

Well, an empathetic person has empathy. But what exactly is this? Over time, many different definitions of empathy emerged. The main reason is that, strictly speaking, empathy is only one component of really getting where people are coming from. Or …… really understanding what is going on for somebody else. Let us try to complete the definition.

Empathy is defined as the ability to perceive the motivations, thoughts and feelings of another person.

Often empathy is equated with compassion, although strictly speaking, compassion is only a result of empathy.

In psychology, a distinction is made between different forms of empathy. These are:

Cognitive empathy

If we only perceive the feelings and emotional moods of others, but do not respond with our own feelings on it, then we are speaking about cognitive empathy. These include conscious and unconscious signals we receive from other people. Hence, cognitive empathy it is primarily about understanding the emotions of others.

Emotional empathy

In contrast to cognitive empathy, where the person only perceives and understands; emotional empathy produces a similar reaction in the perceiver. It means I do not just perceive the feelings of the other person, but I feel what the other person feels. This explains the well-known term "compassion". Just one example which most likely everyone has already experienced is that we see a person crying. We also know why the person is crying and all of a sudden we have to cry with them.

Empathy - a soft Skill in youth work
Empathy - a soft Skill in youth work | ©: Trueffelpix - Fotolia

Fact: Without empathy any coexistence of people would end in chaos, violence and anarchy. Every human being needs the ability, at least to a certain degree, to consolidate, have compassion, and be sympathetic to other people’s needs. After all, this is what distinguishes us from (most) wild animals.

What influences human’s empathy?

Until a few years ago it was believed that empathy is not innate and, therefore, needs to be learned. In the meantime, science dismissed this idea. Today it is thought that from a certain point onwards, people cannot further develop their empathy. What scientists are sure about is, that empathy highly depends on the person’s personal environment and remodels in terms of empathy.

Therefore, is empathy innate?

To a degree, it is and will develop during childhood to they already mentioned amount of empathy. It is almost the parents who are responsible to set the limit of their child’s empathy. For the child to first develop a sense of self or self-worth you need to show your child sensibility and that you are taking its needs seriously. This sense of self then will give the child the platform to develop empathy.

The child who did not experience this kind of care, but experienced contempt, violence and humiliation, in most cases is not in a good position to develop this sense of self. Hence, this in turn implies that the child will have difficulties to empathize with the feelings of others. A dangerous combination that often leads to violence, hatred and corresponding offenses.

If looking at empathy from a medical point of view we learn that it is the so-called mirror neurons, which handle the skill of empathy. Those mirror neurons were only discovered in the mid-1990s. They ensure that visual impressions can be linked to feelings. For example, we see someone suffering from severe pain and this awakens a sense of pain in us as well. It is those mirror neurons that activate the corresponding brain regions.

Develop and strengthen empathy in youth groups

The smallest group we know consists of two persons and is called a friend- or partnership. Empathy plays a big part in such relationships. Researchers at an American University found that the ability to rejoice with others is leading in building long and lasting friend- or partnerships.

This study again shows how we can strengthen and promote empathy – for the individual as well as for a group. For example, games should be selected in a way so that the winner is always a participant as well. It is now up to the others, to honestly rejoice with the winner (I think this isn’t so easy for some kids “honestly rejoice with the winner”). Likewise, they will enjoy the delight of others when being the winner themselves.

There are many other exercises that can be used for the development of empathy within a group setting. This includes:

  • Leading discussions and taking turns – wait until the other stops speaking

  • Acknowledge other peoples point of view and try to see it from their side

  • Keep eye contact when talking, at least look at the person you are talking to

  • Etc.

Implementation and importance for youth work

Everyone who has ever worked with children and young people knows that there are always conflicts between children or young people and that there are always children and adolescents who are struggling with their parents. However, it is not only the children among themselves who can have conflicts, but there may also be clashes between staff and young people. A conflict may escalate and harden. It seems even arguing has become useless. In such cases, a conflict resolution is required. That’s where empathy comes into play.

  • A person who is emotional understood is much more accessible and equally more likely to open up again. However long that might take. How can you make that work?

  • Take your time and listen actively

  • Paraphrase without judgment what you have heard to make sure you understood correctly.

  • Scrutinize underlying feelings and needs (fears, desires,). Then recognises them and take appropriate initiatives.

  • If I am involved in the conflict: my own needs go on the backburner.

How can I acquire empathy?

  • To get to know the other person, show interest. (Ask yourself, do I take really time? Am I interested in my group members?)

  • To understand why a person has become the way they are. (Everyone is the way he has become. The influences are many. However, behind every behaviour of the child or young person hides a particular need, desire or goal. One of them is recognition, to get attention, to be someone. Why that is different from child to child is based on personal reasons).

  • Taking time and really listening. (Many can’t just do that and rather say, “Not now, I have no time”).

  • Take the other person seriously with all their problems. (Many see only themselves and think with all their problems they are more important. With this attitude, how can you listen and take someone else seriously?)

  • Get yourself on the same level with the young person. Take their eye level. There is no higher/lower, dumb/smart, student/teacher, participant/leader. We are all people. (Many youth workers engage in a mental framework like: I AM LEADER – you are participant or make degrading remakes about other young people.)

  • Not to judge or criticize (every person is quick to judge others) and put everyone in their box. And that includes the youth worker. This is sometimes expressed through the individual’s posture, mindful or mindless comments, etc. Tact is needed as well as the right choice of words. Judgment and criticism are devastating to every sensitive conversation or conflict resolution. Mutual understanding is the only way to find a resolution!)

How can you practice empathy in the youth group with young people?

  • Select appropriate games and talk about it afterwards: "what happened to me during the game?"

  • When you are discussing something, listen and let the other one finish before someone else starts to talk

  • During discussions accept different opinions without putting them down

  • When talking about conflicts look at all sides of the problem: what feelings are afflicting you? Which causes (needs) are underlying? How can we bring about a solution? Show some resolutions!

  • Games: games which promote confidence, games with and without winners or losers, games for cooperation, games to communicate.

[ © | 2000 Games and Ideas for Youth Work ] - 2000 Games and Ideas for Youth Work
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