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Empathy in Problem Solving ,
for Projects and Relationships

Understanding other people, by thinking with empathy, is almost always essential for skillful design thinking, for solving problems.  You use design thinking (with empathy) for almost everything in life, so empathy can help you achieve a wide variety of objectives, in design projects and in relationships as described in an overview of using empathy in Design-Thinking Process by asking empathy questions — "What do THEY want?" and "What do I want?" and, combining these, "What do WE want?" — while you're trying to achieve win-win results.

In the following sections about empathy, later we'll explore the similarities between Empathy (to understand others) & Metacognition (to understand self) and will examine the Empathy-Ecology of a Classroom.

But we'll begin by asking...


What is empathy?

It's useful to think about — and think with,* and cultivate in yourself & others — different kinds of empathy:   Cognitive Empathy by cognitively understanding the feeling-and-thinking and behaviors of another person;   Emotional Empathy (aka Affective Empathy) by feeling what another person feels;   Compassionate Empathy (aka Compassion or Empathic Concern or Compassionate Concern) is a desire for the well-being of another person.

For most purposes, including education, it seems more useful to think about 2 kinds of empathy (Cognitive & Emotional) instead of 3, and to focus on the Cognitive Empathy that I think is more learn-able and generally is more beneficially useful for problem solving, for making things better.*   Why 2, not 3?  Instead of Compassionate Empathy, I prefer the term Empathic Concern because it places attention on the compassionate Concern (the Compassion) that is produced by Cognitive Empathy (perhaps combined with Emotional Empathy) and is motivated by Kindness.    /    There is wide variation in the terms used, and their definitions;  a comprehensive Literature Review about Empathy Training includes a recognition that "there are as many researchers acknowledging discrepancies in the use of the term, as there are inconsistent definitions."   many definitions of empathy(s)

also - How wide is the scope of "others"?  In addition to other humans, we also can have empathy for animals — such as a monkey or dolphin, dog or cat, parrot or lizard — although the accuracy of our empathy is limited by significant differences between us and them in our experiences of thinking & feeling, and our difficulties in communicating with them.

* Do we "think with" empathy?  Both kinds of empathy, cognitive and emotional, are important.  But this is a website about thinking that is productive for problem solving, so I'll be saying more about Cognitive Empathy, which is the ability to understand what another person is thinking-and-feeling.


Developing and Using a Growth Mindset for

improving Emotional-and-Social Intelligence

As part of a whole-person education for ideas-and-skills & more a teacher can help students learn how to more effectively use both kinds of empathy, by improving their Cognitive Empathies and Emotional Empathies, and their skills in being aware (cognitively and emotionally) of the thinking & feeling of others in a wide variety of life-situations, and also (with metacognitive self-empathy) of themselves.  These essential components of Emotional Intelligence* are closely related to Social Intelligence.  Students can improve all of their multiple intelligences (including emotional-and-social) when they develop-and-use a growth mindset by believing that their abilities are not fixed at the current levels, instead each ability can become better, can be “grown” when they invest intelligent effort to improve this kind of ability.

    * Psychology Today describes Emotional Intelligence as "the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others.  Emotional intelligence is generally said to include at least three skills:  emotional awareness, or the ability to identify and name one's own emotions [by using self-empathy, and by using empathy to "identify and name" another person's emotions];  the ability to harness those emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and [to "make things better" in ways that include improved relationships] problem solving;  and the ability to manage emotions, which includes both regulating one's own emotions when necessary, and helping others to do the same."  {emphasis and [comments] added by me}
Two closely related abilities – Social Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence – are combined in educational programs* to improve the Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) that is briefly defined by casel.org — "social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions" — in the introduction for What is SEL?     {* and people improve these skills informally by learning from their life-experiences}


As part of a school's Social-Emotional Learning to improve Social Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence, teachers can help students improve their Cognitive Empathy & Emotional Empathy and their Empathic Concern and Compassionate Action.

Compassion in Action:  A process that produces compassionate action occurs in a sequence:  cognitive empathy and/or emotional empathy, plus kindness, may produce empathic concern for a person, which may produce a desire to help them, and then action to help them.    /    The whole process can occur quickly, as with emergency action, or during a long period of time.  Or action may not occur at all, if the sequence is broken at any point.

Compassion in Design:  A process of design may lead to Compassionate Action if, for any area of life,* Empathic Concern is a motivating-and-guiding factor when you Define a Problem by Choosing an Objective and Defining Goal-Criteria.     {*compassionate action can be motivated by empathic concern in traditional design projects and in relationships}

Is empathy always useful?  In most design projects – even when you are not motivated mainly by compassion – it's very useful to think with empathy. {why do I say "most" projects, instead of “all”?}   And self-empathy, to understand yourself, is useful when your objective is a personal decision or a personal thinking strategy.   {more about empathy and self-empathy}

Human-Centered Design:  Because "empathy is the foundation of a human-centered design process," d.school (of Stanford) emphasizes the importance of a mode for Empathy by including it (when you search for "empath") in 19 of its 47 pages.  And one of their mindsets for design-thinking is to Focus on Human Values.   {Empathy in Design Thinking with d.school and DEEPdt}  {designing with empathy and self-empathy}


Accuracy in Empathy

Do you have an accurate understanding of people?  If you are surprised by a behavior — because your Observations (of how a person responds, in what they do or say) don't match your Predictions (your expectations) — something is wrong with your empathetic understanding of the way other people are thinking & feeling, of how they will respond in this situation.  Why?

When you do a Reality Check by comparing Predictions with Observations, a mis-match can occur due to...

    your inadequate Observations in the past, or
    your incorrect interpretations of these Observations when you constructed an explanatory Theory/Model (used to make Predictions) for this aspect of human feeling/thinking-and-behaving, in one of the areas (re: psychology, sociology, economics, marketing, politics,...) studied by Social Sciences.
    Or maybe the other person(s) responded in an unusual way, not consistent with their previous feeling & thinking & actions.


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Empathy in Design Projects

In all phases of a traditional Design Project — especially in Modes 1A and 1B when you Choose an Objective and Define Desired Goal-Properties for a product (or activity, strategy, theory) — it's important to think with empathy.  This is important for your Solution-Users and for those (you and maybe others) who are Solution-Designers.


Empathy for Solution-Users:  You learn about the thinking-and-behavior of potential users of a product by getting observations — old (already known by yourself or others) or new (from your own new studies) from customer interviews, focus groups, market surveys,... — that help you understand, with better insights into “how will they use the product? what do they need? and want?”  Ask users for feedback (positive & negative), for constructive criticism and suggestions.  By creatively imagining what it's like to “be a user and think like a user” from their perspective, make predictions.*  Also try to “think like a buyer” or (in another aspect of the project) to “think like a seller.”  These information-gathering activities will help you supplement your internal egocentric thinking with externally-oriented empathetic thinking for all stake-holders in a project, for everyone who will be involved in (or affected by) the project in any way, who will design, make, market, distribute, sell, buy, use, or service the product, or be involved or affected in other ways.

* Predictive Empathy:  Usually you'll try to "think like a buyer/user" in their future, which may differ from their thinking in the present.  For example, Helen Walters describes the "approach to customer research [of Steve Jobs, who said] ‘It isn't the consumers' job to know what they want.’  Jobs is comfortable hanging out in the world of the unknown, and this confidence allows him to take risks and make intuitive bets" by using empathy-based predictions of what buyers/users will want later, even if they don't yet want it now.


Relevant Empathy:  You can never fully understand another person.  Usually your main goal is relevant empathy, by trying to understand what is most important for a particular situation.  If you're designing a product, for example, you'll want to understand the thinking & feeling, the needing and wanting, of people who would use (or might buy) the product, in the context of their using the product and/or buying it.   And for a relationship-situation, usually you focus on understanding what is most relevant in the context of that situation.


Empathy for Solution-Designers:  During a design project you'll want to develop empathy for solution-users (those you are serving), as described above.  And when you're co-designing as part of a group, you'll want to develop empathy for the other solution-designers in your team, to make your process of cooperative problem-solving more enjoyable and productive.   If members of a group improve their use of “collaborative empathy” this will improve their interactions, and will help them develop a cooperative community for creative collaboration.  This can occur in many contexts, including schools where better educational teamwork (by everyone involved in education) will make the process more enjoyable for teachers, and more effective for students by increasing positives (in learning, performing, enjoying) and decreasing negatives (like jealous attitudes & bullying behaviors).     {building empathy-ecology in a classroom}


Traditional and Relational:  Empathy is useful whenever you want to solve a problem by “making it better” with a traditional design project (above) — when you use empathy to produce a better solution (for your solution-users) and a better process (if you're working in a team of solution-producers) — and/or a relational design project (below) when your objective is to improve an interpersonal relationship.

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Empathy in Relationships 

An Important Objective:  Originally I defined four general categories for problem-solving objectives – for when we decide to design a better product, strategy, activity, and/or theory.  Later I added relationships because our most important problems (our opportunities to make things better) usually involve people, so improved relationships are among the most important objectives we can choose to improve.  How?  An essential foundation is developing...

Empathy and Self-Empathy to improve Two Understandings:  You can build a solid foundation for improving your relationships by improving two kinds of understandings (external and internal) with externally-oriented empathetic skills – to develop empathy (overall and also situation-specific relevant empathy) based on external observations, trying to understand what others are feeling & thinking – and internally-oriented metacognitive skills (to develop self-empathy based on internal observations, trying to understand what you are feeling & thinking).   The practical value of these life-skills is a reason to define...

Educational Goals for Relationship Skills:  We can aim for whole-person education that will help students improve personally useful ideas & skills and more in their whole lives as whole people.  Our educational goals should include the important life-skill of building better relationships, with empathy & kindness and in other ways.  A very useful general strategy — for educating students (and yourself) in all of the multiple intelligences, including social-emotional intelligences — is to develop & consistently use a growth mindset.


Kindness plus Empathy:  When you want to be kind — and you combine your kindness with empathy — this will help you...

Choose a Win-Win Goal:  In many common life-situations, when you are trying to "make things better" your two understandings (external for others, and internal for self) are combined when you ask — while you are defining your goals — “what do they want?” (using empathy to understand others) and (using self-empathy to understand yourself) “what do I want?” and (if you choose to define your goal as an optimal win-win result) “what do we want?”     /     You also make choices when you...

Define the Scope of Your Win-Win Goals:  How broadly do you define "they" when you're trying to achieve win-win results?  If you want to decrease the unfortunate tendency of positive teamwork to become negative tribalism, one strategy is for you (and those you influence) to increase your...

Understanding and Respect:  One of the many ways we can improve relationships is to develop better teamwork.  But one strategy for developing strong relationships among insiders (within a team) — by promoting hostile “us against them” attitudes toward outsiders (not in the team) — can convert positive teamwork into negative tribalism.   { I'm calling it negative tribalism because tribe-like strong loyalties produce some positive effects and some negative effects. }     One kind of educational activity that can help reduce the negative aspects of tribalism is examined in a page describing how my favorite high school teacher, by using informative debates in his civics class, helped us develop Accurate Understandings and Respectful Attitudes.  How?  After he helped us carefully-and-diligently study an issue, so our understandings of different position-perspectives were more accurate and thorough, usually we recognized that even when we have justifiable reasons to prefer one position,* people on other sides of an issue may also have justifiable reasons, both intellectual and ethical, for believing as they do, so we learned respectful attitudes.   {* yes, he wanted us to find "justifiable reasons" because his educational goal was not a logically-fuzzy postmodern relativism, instead he promoted a logically appropriate humility with confidence that is not too little and not too much.}    When this kind of educational process is done well, it can produce a foundation of empathetic understanding that is useful for producing authentic understanding & respect, that helps us be more kind in our feeling & thinking & actions.


Empathy without Kindness:  This can be a bad combination, when it allows the use of empathetic thinking as a tool for manipulating others in harmful ways.


Empathy plus Kindness:  This is a good combination, when empathy (a useful skill) is accompanied by kindness (an essential aspect of good character).  Thinking with empathy is beneficial for other people when it's combined with kindness-and-caring in feeling & thinking & actions, when an attitude of caring for others (in feeling & thinking) leads to caring for others (in actions), with actions motivated by kindness, by genuinely caring for other people.

Kindness in Thinking-and-Actions:  More people will have better lives...  if more of us are more often motivated by kindness, with goals of trying to “make things better” for other people, wanting to affect their lives in ways that are beneficial for them, that make life better for them;   and if our empathy-based compassionate concerns were more often actualized with kindness in our actions.

A Wonderful Life produces Beneficial Effects:  A creative illustration of helping others is my favorite movie, It's a Wonderful Life.  I like it partly for its artistry (in plot, dialogue, acting, directing, photography) but mainly for the message:  each of us affects other people – as dramatized in the end-of-movie comparison of lives with & without George Bailey – and our own life is better when we affect others in ways that make their lives better, and help them achieve worthy goals in life.  We can help others enjoy what they do, and (when they “pass it on”) do more actions that benefit others, and more fully develop their whole-person potentials.

Helping Others achieve Their Goals:  For understanding how we can be more beneficial — by helping another person "enjoy..." and "more fully develop their whole-person potentials" so they are becoming a better version of themself, growing into the kind of “ideal person” they want to be, or they should be — a useful perspective is the Michelangelo Phenomenon;  this concept was developed by social psychologists, with Caryl Rusbult (my wonderful sister) being a main developer.  As described in a review article by Rusbult, Finkel, & Kumashiro: "close partners sculpt one another's selves, shaping one another's skills and traits [analogous to Michelangelo's Actions while shaping a piece of stone so it becomes a beautiful work of art] and promoting versus inhibiting one another's goal pursuits... of attaining his or her ideal-self goals" in the "dreams and aspirations, or the constellation of skills, traits, and resources that an individual ideally wishes to acquire."  When lovingly influential Michelangelo Actions are done well, the beneficial effects usually are lovingly appreciated, as we see in "Love" by Roy Croft:  "I love you, not only for what you have made of yourself, but for what you are making of me."   Or in the language of education, when feedback-actions help another person improve, this is formative feedback that helps them “form themselves” into a better person.   Of course, a beneficial shaping influence — a teaching influence that helps them develop a growth mindset about improving their skills with social-emotional intelligences and relational empathy — can come from a "close partner" and also others, including friends and family, counselors, fellow students & team members & co-workers, and teachers & coaches & supervisors.


Golden Rule with Empathy:  For building mutually beneficial relationships, one useful principle-for-life is a Golden Rule with Empathy that combines kindness with empathy, by treating others in ways THEY want to be treated, which may differ from what you would want.*  Treating others this way will be beneficial for them, and also for you (especially in the long run), in a wide variety of situations.     /     * But it doesn't really "differ from what you would want," if we look more deeply.  Why?  You want others to empathetically understand you, and then treat you the way you want to be treated.  Other people also want this, so you should Seek First to Understand (with Habit 5 in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) and then use a Golden Rule, e.g. "Do for others what you want them to do for you" by treating them the way THEY want to be treated.

Empathy for Society:  I.O.U. – This paragraph might be written before mid-2023, with ideas from John Rawls:  imagine you are part of a group in Original Position (before you're born) that is designing a society with the goal of making life optimal for all,  and you are self-interested in "all" because – with a Veil of Ignorance – you don't know “who you will be” when you are born, re: your multiple intelligences, looks, race, health, wealth, status, location,... ;   in reality we cannot be “ignorant of our situation” now, during life as it really is, but we can use empathy + kindness/compassion in our thinking about society.    {for more, an article by Richard Beck, Empathy, the Veil of Ignorance, and Justice}


Clever and Kind:  Abraham Heschel, sharing an insightful observation based on self-empathy, wisely said "When I was young, I admired clever people.  Now that I am old, I admire kind people."   Teachers can help students, while they are still young, appreciate the value of being truly clever (with skills in creative-and-critical productive thinking to solve problems to make things better) and also kind.



Empathy and Metacognition

These related ways of thinking – helping you understand others, and understand yourself – are very useful in all areas of life, including education.  This section — first in Goals & Perspectives, then in RESULTS and PROCESS, and Using Empathetic Feedback in a Classroom — will examine ideas & strategies that can help a teacher and students develop better empathy-ecology in their classroom.


Goals & Perspectives

Empathy and Metacognition have similar goals (to understand thinking & feeling) but different orientation-perspectives, re: external and internal.

    • With empathy you try to understand the thinking & feeling of others, who are external to you.     { two empathies and a result: cognitive empathy (used "to understand" thinking & feeling) plus emotional empathy (to feel) can produce empathic concern. }
    • With metacognition (self-empathy) you try to understand your own internal thinking (& feeling).     { In its basic definition, with metacognition you "think about your thinking."  But in practice, thinking and feeling are related, often with strong mutual influences.  Therefore, typically it's useful to “think about your thinking AND feeling.” }

External & Internal, for You and Others:

    everyone – you and others – thinks with externally-oriented empathy, to understand the thinking & feeling of other people;
    everyone – you and others – thinks with internally-oriented metacognition, to understand your own thinking & feeling.

The external & internal understandings constructed by you are summarized in the 1st & 2nd rows-of-cells in this table.

The 3rd & 4th cell-rows describe the external & internal understandings constructed by another person.

terms RESULT (who and WHO) RESULT (what)
(external) EMPATHY
by you, for ANOTHER PERSON, 
your external empathetic
understanding of another
thinking & feeling.
by you, for YOURSELF,
your internal metacognitive
understanding of self,
thinking & feeling. 
(external) EMPATHY
by another person, for YOU,
their external empathetic
understanding of another,
thinking & feeling.
(internal) SELF-EMPATHY
by another person, for THEMSELF, 
their internal metacognitive
understanding of self,
thinking & feeling.

Metacognition and Self-Empathy:  These terms have the same meaning, in this page.  More generally, when these terms are used by others, typically with metacognition the emphasis is more heavily on thinking, and with self-empathy it's on feeling (but also thinking).

other terms:  a metacognitive understanding is aka personal metacognitive knowledge that is one aspect of a person's overall general-and-personal metacognitive knowledge.  By analogy, empathetic understanding also can be called empathetic knowledge, although the term metacognitive knowledge is used much more often.


RESULTS  —  Perspectives and Understandings

By comparing understandings of YOU in the 2nd & 3rd cell-rows, or of THEM in the 1st & 4th rows, you can see how understandings (of YOU, or of THEM) depend on point-of-view perspectives (on whether the constructing is done by you, or by them).

two pov-perspectives on YOU, in rows 2 & 3:  You use internal metacognition (self-empathy) to construct your understanding of YOUR thinking & feeling.  And another person uses external empathy to construct their understanding of YOUR thinking & feeling.  It can be interesting to compare these two understandings, asking “How do I view me? How do they view me?” and “What are the similarities? and differences?” and “Why do the differences occur?” and “Which understanding is more accurate? and in what ways?”

three pov-perspectives on ANOTHER PERSON, in rows 1 & 4 & _:  You also can make comparisons and ask questions (about similarities & differences, and accuracy), re: understandings of ANOTHER PERSON – “How do I view THEM? How does this person view THEMSELF?  And, not shown in the table, how do other people view THEM?”


When we compare empathy (to understand others) with metacognition (to understand self), we see many similarities and analogous relationships in the PROCESS used (below) and (above) the RESULT produced.


PROCESS  —  constructing Empathy & Metacognition

Now we'll shift attention from RESULTS to PROCESS.

We construct our understandings (of others & self) in a social context, so it's useful to distinguish between...

Understanding and Feedback:  We construct (i.e. we develop) feedback in a two-step process.  First we use empathy or metacognition to construct understanding that we use, after evaluative filtering, to provide feedback for others, with communication.   {Understanding and Feedback, Part 2}


You construct your external EMPATHY (it's your understanding of ANOTHER PERSON) when you internally interpret all of the evidence you find.   You can use three kinds of evidence:  your observations of the personfeedback about the person from other people;  feedback about self from the person.

You construct your internal SELF-EMPATHY (to get your understanding of YOURSELF) when you internally interpret all of the evidence you find.   You can use two kinds of evidence:  your observations of yourself;  and feedback about you from others.

{an option: If the table below is too wide for easy reading in your browser window, you can temporarily view this page in a new full-width window.}

The first 4 rows in the tables above (for RESULTS) and below (for PROCESS) are matched, re: who is trying to understand WHO.  Below,

    The 1st and 2nd rows summarize-and-organize the processes you use to construct your understandings of ANOTHER and YOURSELF.
    The 3rd and 4th rows describe how, using the same processes, another person constructs their other-understanding of YOU, and their self-understanding of THEMSELF.  The 5th row shows how they construct their other-understanding of ANOTHER PERSON, of someone who isn't YOU or THEM, and thus is a THIRD PERSON.
terms PROCESS (of finding evidence) PROCESS (of interpreting)
(external) EMPATHY by you,
trying to understand A PERSON,
constructed by you, using found-evidence that is
empathetic observations-of-person by you,
empathetic feedback-about-person from others,
metacognitive feedback-about-person from the person
internally interpreted by you.
[to construct other-understanding
about THEM]
(internal) SELF-EMPATHY by you,
trying to understand YOURSELF,
constructed by you, using found-evidence that is
metacognitive observations-of-self by you,
empathetic feedback-about-you from others,
internally interpreted by you.
[to construct self-understanding
(external) EMPATHY by a person,
trying to understand YOU,
constructed by them, using found-evidence that is 
empathetic observations-of-you by them,
metacognitive feedback-about-yourself from you,*
empathetic feedback-about-you from others,
internally interpreted by them. 
[to construct other-understanding
about YOU]
(internal) SELF-EMPATHY by a person
trying to understand THEMSELF,
constructed by them, using found-evidence that is
metacognitive observations-of-self by them,
empathetic feedback-about-them from others
  that can include feedback-about-them from you,*
internally interpreted by them.
[to construct self-understanding
(external) EMPATHY by a person,
trying to understand A THIRD PERSON,
constructed by them, using found-evidence that is 
empathetic observations-of-third by them,
metacognitive feedback-about-third from third,
empathetic feedback-about-third from others
  that can include feedback-about-third from you,*
internally interpreted by them. 
[to construct other-understanding

Did you notice that the 3rd & 5th rows are analogous but with one difference?   (what is it? the 5th-row process can include one extra evidence that is "feedback-about-third from you")


Understanding and Feedback  —  These are related, but different.  They occur in sequence:

    1. First you use empathy and observations-of-performance, trying to get accurate understandings of another person(s), and of their performance(s).
    2. Then if you want to provide helpful feedback,* you will wisely filter your understandings by not saying everything you are thinking, but only what will be helpful.  You do this by deciding, for each person or group, what to say (and not say), when and how, or whether to say nothing.  The goal is to be helpful by providing formative feedback with an intention, and hopefully a result, of being kind and beneficial.   /   * Unfortunately, sometimes (if a person doesn't want to be kind-and-beneficial) the feedback is intended to be un-helpful.
    1-during-2:  An empathetic understanding (developed in Step 1) is used (in Step 2) during the process of filtering, when you're deciding the details (the what/when/how-and-whether) of providing feedback that will be helpful.
MORE - Other useful strategies for providing helpful feedback are in two places:  Developing a Creative (and critical) Community by trying to minimize any "harshness" in feedback-providing and feedback-receiving;  Evaluation is Argumentation that in a group requires "the social skills of communication" when you combine Evaluative Thinking with a Persuasion Strategy and Communication Skills, along with productive Attitudes while Arguing.


Using Empathetic Feedback in a Classroom

The three *s — above in the table-for-process and below in descriptions of each * — are three kinds of "feedback... from you."  Imagine that you are a teacher, and two of your students are Sue ("a person", aka "them") and John ("a third person", aka "third").

How will you use these 3 kinds of empathy-based feedbacks?  If you're an effective teacher, then (in cell-Rows 4, 5, and 3)...

    * You want to provide feedback that will help Sue construct a better self-understanding of HERSELF.  (This is her SELF-EMPATHY, aka her METACOGNITION, in Row 4.)   /   a new term: Sue's own internal METACOGNITION (by "thinking about Sue's thinking) is being supplemented by your feedback-to-her about her, which is aka external metacognition because it's the "thinking about Sue's thinking" that is externally supplied by you, as an empathetic observer.
    * You want to provide feedback that will help Sue (and other students) construct a better other-understanding of JOHN.  (This is her EMPATHY for A THIRD PERSON in Row 5.)   /  You can provide feedback-to-others about all of your students, individually and collectively, to influence each student's other-understandings of their fellow students, and attitudes toward them.
    * You want to provide feedback that will help Sue construct a better other-understanding of YOU.  (This is her EMPATHY for YOU in Row 3.) 

With a particular feedback, you want to help a student understand themself (Row 4), or another student (Row 5), or you (Row 3).

  3-Way Interactions in Empathetic Classroom Ecology

Building an Ecology of Empathy in a Classroom

All of these *-feedbacks are one part of the complex personal interactions (simplistically symbolized in the diagram) that occur in every classroom.  In this context, "better self-understanding" and "better other-understanding" will help all of you — Teacher, Student (like Sue or John), and students (in the whole class, or in smaller groups) — develop a better ecology of empathy in your classroom.

In the interactions-diagram, arrows indicate a variety of interactions, including communications that are verbal (with *-feedbacks and in other ways) and non-verbal:

    two arrows point away from the Teacher (you) who can communicate with only one Student (like Sue) or with two or more students.
    two arrows point away from the Student (Sue) who can communicate with you, or with one or more other students.
    two arrows point away from students (John & others) who can communicate with you, or with any other Student(s).   {note: A complex diagram that is more-complete would show more kinds of interactions between students, as individuals and in groups.}

A skilled teacher will provide guidance for students in how to "wisely filter" their communications (using feedback and in other ways) with the teacher and each other, so their interactions will be helpful.  A wise evaluating-and-filtering should be based on a foundation of healthy interpersonal motivations, with each student wanting to be kind, wanting to affect others in beneficial ways.

Shared Goals and Individual Goals:  In ideal educational teamwork the teacher and all students will have shared educational goals of “greatest good for the greatest number” with optimal learning-performing-enjoying for everyone in the classroom.  But each student also will have their own personal goals that include wanting to improve their interpersonal relationships and personal education.

Habit 5 of Highly Effective People is "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."  As a teacher, you can use this habit/principle in (at least) two ways:

    When you provide feedback, in Step 1 you try to understand Sue, as a foundation for Step 2 when you help her understand your view of her and what she is doing and how she can improve.   {your feedback is one aspect of stimulating and guiding students}
    In the third *-feedback you try to understand Sue, so (with your *-feedback about yourself) you can help her understand you.


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Building Empathy-Ecology for a Classroom

I.O.U. - Below are some ideas that eventually, maybe by mid-2019, will be developed more fully.

a humble disclaimer:  This section is just ideas, and most of the ideas (maybe all of them) aren't really new.  I'm just describing some goals of skilled teachers, and some strategies they already are using to effectively pursue their goals.


Important foundational ideas, essential for this section, are in other parts of the website:

• empathy-ecology performs a valuable function in a system of strategies for teaching by helping a teacher provide formative feedback that will help students improve their performing-enjoying-learning and their system of self-perceptions and...

    more generally, will help guide our goal-directed designing of coordinated curriculum & instruction.

• definitions for empathy(s) & metacognition and their Process (of construction) & Result (in understanding) and their uses (by teacher & students) in developing a classroom ecology.  /  [[here are ideas that will be developed later: motivational teamwork for cooperation-collaboration in education, at all levels, including Teaching Strategies for students (re: how they influence the learning of other students, directly with peer teaching, and indirectly/unofficially);  being motivated, as on a sports team, to establish an education-culture for better learning/performing/enjoying;  a HMW for students, in activity where they ask "How Might We" design our own ideal culture/environment for optimal learning, to pursue a “greatest good for the greatest number of students” and for the teacher.]]

strategies for thinking (in a wide variety of contexts) by learning from experience, and...

    related strategies for teaching.

based on their understanding of personal motivation teachers can use motivational persuasion to help students recognize that school experiences (when they're well designed) can help them learn for life so they will want to adopt a problem-solving approach (to "make it better" in their life) for their own personal education.  When students are personally motivated to learn, it will be much easier for teachers & students to build educational teamwork in a classroom and a school.


Educational Ecologies (in Educational Ecosystems) occur at many levels, in large-scale systems — in a nation, state, district, school, department — and, on a smaller scale,

3-Way Interactions in Empathetic Classroom Ecology

in a classroom with its ecosystem of interactions between each Student and other students and the Teacher, as shown simplistically in this diagram, to produce 6 kinds of formative feedback — from one person (or group) to another — based on empathetic understandings of what others are feeling & thinking in their hearts & minds.  Each person also tries to understand, with metacognitive self-empathy, their own feeling & thinking, their own life-goals and life-strategies, for what they want (in their goals) and how to get it (with their strategies).   {a process of developing classroom ecology should be based on a foundation of kind attitudes and compassionate intentions to be benefically helpful}

Ideally, the shared goal when building empathy-ecology in a classroom will be improving the total school experience to produce an optimal performing-enjoying-learning overall, with “greatest good for the greatest number” but also respect for all individuals.  For each student, and the teacher(s), the shared mutual objective is to build educational teamwork that will be helpful in achieving individual goals, and group goals.  All can work together in creative collaboration to construct a classroom community with a learning-friendly atmosphere, so students can learn in the ways they want to learn and are able to learn.


I.O.U. reminder - Soon, maybe in mid-2023, these ideas (and related ideas) "will be developed more fully," including my exploration of what others are doing — in principle and in applications — with different aspects of educational ecology.



Is empathy always needed?

This section responds to a question:  Is thinking-with-empathy useful in ALL design projects?


A high quality of thinking with empathy (so your understanding is relevant, accurate, and deep) is extremely important for defining and solving most problems.  But not all problems, because empathy is not very important (or at least it's different) for problem-solving objectives in two categories, when your problem either (1) involves mainly you, or  (2) does not directly involve any people,  when...


1) ...when you want to “make life better” by achieving an objective that is mainly for your own benefit, not for other people,and you do most of the problem solving (or all of it) by yourself.   This focus-on-self occurs for some personal decisions and for many of your thinking strategies.  To do each of these well, you need to know yourself, with self-empathy for your own thinking & feeling.  You can use the benefits of different perspectives by supplementing your own understanding (from internal self-observation & self-empathy by yourself) with other understandings (from external observations & empathy by other people).    {perspectives - internal & external, metacognition & empathy}

* Even when a problem-solving project does not "directly involve people" (as in 2a below) or "...other people" (in 1 above), usually some people will be affected in some way, so typically we are describing an objective that requires less empathy, rather than no empathy.


2a) ...when the objective is mostly technical, so it does not directly involve people.  This can occur because a wide variety of objectives (for designing a better object, activity, or strategy in General Design) require a wide variety of empathy, with less needed for a few objectives (those in 2a) than for most objectives.   { IOU - Later, maybe in May, some of these variations-in-empathy will be examined in an appendix, as outlined in the final paragraph of this page.

2b) ...when your functional responsibility in a problem-solving process is to solve a purely technical problem, in a sub-project within the overall project.  For example, you might be asked to design a new piece of equipment (or to repair it) after the technical goal-specifications already have been clearly defined by others in a part of the design project (Defining a Problem) that usually requires empathy. }

2c) ...when your objective in Science-Design is an explanatory theory about NON-HUMAN aspects of nature (as in chemistry, physics, or astronomy), not about HUMAN nature (as in psychology, sociology, political science, economics, marketing,...).    { If you ask “is science-design authentic design?”, we can discuss the pros & cons of using definitions (for problem, design, design thinking,...) that are broad or narrow. }


Empathy for Collaboration:  During any design project (including 1, 2a, 2b, 2c), if you're working collaboratively it's important to have empathy for your colleagues, so you can understand (intellectually and emotionally) what they are thinking & feeling, to help all of you work together more effectively and enjoyably.



I.O.U. - The ideas below are in gray text because they need to be developed and revised:

In this website, the importance of empathy is emphasized (as in mc-em.htm#empathy - ws.htm#dpmo1ab - ws.htm#dpmo2aem - ws.htm#mcts ) but some other models-for-process (like d.school and DEEPdt) emphasize it more strongly, as described here.

The fact that creative thinking is necessary to imagine projects requiring "no empathy (or very little)" shows that empathy is essential (or at least is extremely useful) for understanding-and-improving almost all problem-situations. — especially for "design projects" (which include almost everything we do in life) that are worthwhile.

maybe responses will be indicated by text-highlighting the objectives where empathy is extremely important and very important and not as important.

for a problem that only you can solve, analogous to solo mountain climbing when you are “on your own” so you must do everything by yourself. 


A larger project is making a detailed appendix (maybe in May) by asking, for many objectives (across a wide range of objectives), "How useful is thinking with empathy when you define a problem (by learning about a problem-situation, defining an objective, defining goals for a solution) and solve the problem (by designing a solution that satisfactorily achieves your goals)?"