Empathy Lightbulbs and how to switch them on.

posted in: Mindset | 0

How often do you think about other people?

How often do you think about what your actions do to affect other people?

How often do you think about what it would feel like to be another person?

I’ve been thinking about empathy for a week or so after answering a tweet about misogyny with the phrase Empathy Lightbulbs – and what it takes for us sometimes to see life from someone else’s point of view…it can sometimes be a moment, an instant, a pivot-point which can help us – in a specific situation – to understand what it might be and feel like to be someone else.

For me, we can see injustice, inequality, unfairness, bullying and other general imbalances in a number of places in life and online yet often are unlikely to intervene or act on those imbalances unless we have experience of it OR unless we can feel empathy for the person being suppressed or oppressed in some way.

Empathy is something we don’t tend to learn about in a structured way but I believe we could learn a lot about society and each other if we thought about the moments that lead to a more empathetic understanding of another’s experience.

Creating such moments is what my Empathy Lightbulb idea is all about.

Is empathy missing from boys’ socialisation? Do we focus on empathy in schools? Certainly in the recent past, boys and men have often told to ‘man up’ and ‘don’t get upset. As boys and men we’re encouraged not to cry or express our feelings and so when men do share their true feelings – think about Ian Wright and his frequent disposition to openly cry when he’s touched emotionally – it can be a surprise. A welcome surprise, but a surprise nonetheless.

A study by Cambridge University[1] in two London schools sought to see whether creating empathy in a design challenge could help a number of positive outcomes in terms of the designs developed, their creativity and the pupils’ understanding of empathy.

“We clearly awakened something in these pupils by encouraging them to think about the thoughts and feelings of others”

Helen Demetriou, affiliated lecturer in psychology and education at the Faculty of Education

Notably, the study found evidence that boys and girls responded to the D&T course in ways that defied traditional gender stereotypes. Boys showed a marked improvement in emotional expression, scoring 64% higher in that category at the end of the year than at the start, while girls improved more in terms of cognitive empathy, showing 62% more perspective-taking. Researchers considered that some of this increase in boys’ empathetic perspective-taking could be because boys are encouraged to show their emotions less at school so the difference was more marked.

Overall, the authors suggest that these findings point to a need to nurture ‘emotionally intelligent learners’ across subjects, particularly in the context of emerging, wider scientific evidence that our capacity for empathy declines as we get older. “This is something that we must think about as curricula in general become increasingly exam-based,” Demetriou said. “Good grades matter, but for society to thrive, creative, communicative and empathic individuals matter too.”

Something that struck me reading this report is that empathy can be learned, but that it also needs to be modelled by adults in our lives and in public life. Empathy can be a difficult thing to see in leaders, particularly in bullish leaders who may seek to create division. Since the Covid pandemic, we have seen empathy from leaders across the world, notably in New Zealand where covid cases and deaths are miniscule compared to the responses – and mortality rates – in countries such as the UK, USA and Brazil. True leadership acknowledges fallibility and admits it, it sees others’ suffering and is moved to take action. In countries with higher death-rates, empathy seemed to be lacking from the decision-making process.

We need more understanding of others’ experiences if we are truly to lead with empathy, but what if we don’t know how to exhibit it or access empathy because we’ve never learned it?

The Drawing The Future[2] research project from Education&Employers, UCL and OECD found that stereotypes about careers can be fixed from around the age of 7, and if nothing is done between then and the age of 17, then those stereotypes become very hard to change. Interestingly many of the pictures drawn by the 20,000+ children in these surveys depicted the ‘caring’ professions as women – nurses, teachers etc – so perhaps stereotypes exist for a reason.

As a young man, I had a scant understanding of empathy, couldn’t have described or defined it and certainly wasn’t good at exhibiting it. If I were young now, would I be any better placed to understand empathy? I’m not sure because as a ‘typical’ boy where would I see empathy if it wasn’t part of the world view I was taught about in my family, social life or school?

  • Empathy isn’t generally present in gaming.
  • Empathy isn’t (often) present in sport…most competitive sport teaches us to focus on the win.
  • Empathy isn’t (often) present in play.

Generally speaking, boys and men still aren’t very good at opening up about their feelings – male models of masculinity, bravery, being the pillar of strength, ‘real men don’t cry’ etc… Again, is this changing? I don’t know. One thing is for sure, society still tends to shy away from emotions and say things like ‘no need to cry’, ‘come along now, it’ll be ok’ and we aren’t always encouraged to explore our feelings – maybe feelings and emotions are seen as awkward or difficult to manage in young people and we don’t always have the language to tread the fine lines needed to navigate heightened emotions and their potential outcomes.

That’s where Empathy Lightbulbs come in to open-up all young peoples’ understanding of empathy but perhaps more importantly boys’ understanding of empathy.

Empathy Lightbulbs will be brought into sessions as small stories, acted vignettes, films and then they would be opened for discussion with guided questions to create purposeful lightbulb moments from learning about people whose lives are very different from our own and whose circumstances we may never have thought about before.

Empathy is the mainstay of the concept of restorative justice* but for me, this is too late. Regardless of your background or experience, it’s crucial that we are systematically taught about how to understand others’ feelings and experiences as if we were in their shoes and as if we were seeing the world through their eyes. Empathy may be missing from the boys and men who commit harassment and abuse, it may be missing from men who use violence and men who are unable to express their feelings and the impact their actions have had on others.

I’m more interested in creating Preventative Compassion through empathy.

One of the first Empathy Lightbulbs I ever experienced was when I was about 18, Chaka Khan’s ‘I feel for you’ was riding high in the charts and we were finishing sixth form. I had just had a heated debate with a group of people, a couple of whom were girls. After they’d left, I described one of the girls as the C-word.  (I know…)

A few minutes after the whole group dispersed, my friend Joe took me to one side and quietly told me why using that word to describe a woman or girl was totally unacceptable and I immediately understood the importance of what he was saying.

I had crossed a values / moral boundary.

I had been challenged in private, not called-out in public and I still think about how it made me feel…luckily it was approached with love and kindness and I accepted it as guidance rather than just criticism. Such is the power of bystandership and friendly challenge.

This was an Empathy Lightbulb – I was made to appreciate someone else’s point of view and how they might feel about my language and behaviour. There have been many empathy lightbulbs since then and that’s why the concept appeals to me AND why I want to create them for young people through workshops, tools, worksheets and simple questions. I delivered my TEDx Whitehaven talk on Engineering Random Opportunities to Succeed[3]on why it’s crucial to enable young people to experience loads of different career options and topics at school so they are helped to navigate their futures with more understanding. This concept became the background for my book, The Ladder[4].

The thing about empathy is that it can be taught through a number of prisms and tools, and linked to any subject area or behaviour we choose.

The concept is flexible and powerful – like a set of school values or an Organisational Mission Statement rather than rules – and is applicable anywhere and everywhere in someone’s life which, in turn, will support their behaviour and positively affect other people.

Empathy is the underpinning tool for understanding.

Understanding is the underpinning tool for kindness.

Kindness is the underpinning tool for a functioning society.

Will you join me in switching on some Empathy Lightbulbs?

Please contact me for more information.


Bernie. x


(*For a brilliant book on a school approach to restorative practice[5], Mark Finnis’ book is excellent)