Welcome to the Age of Selfies, where we are so self-absorbed, self-promotional, and self-conscious we’ve lost connection with others What can be done to counteract this disconnect? The answer lies in emotional intelligence to increase compassion and empathy. EQ in the classroom or boardroom helps build bridges between people and gets us to break free from the Age of Selfies. Here’s 6 how-to tips to build stronger relationships and help use emotional intelligence to increase compassion and empathy.
Think back for a moment to your first day at school when you were fix or six. Or, remember the first day of middle or high school. Were you feeling anxious, scared, or worried about being rejected? For most people, this was a day of nervous excitement–an opportunity to discover new friends, and to explore an environment in which you would be spending the next few years. Perhaps you were shy or timid—sure you would spend the next years alone–unable to make new friends, or worried that you might look or seem different from the others.
Would you be rejected because of your brilliant red hair or your Italian nose? Even now—as old as I am—I identify and relate with these new and worrisome moments from visiting new countries or participating in that vegan cooking class– that these stresses are very real and distracting in the first few seconds of a new experience, but for young people, beginning at a new school, or switching classes, is an especially stressful and emotionally challenging time.
So, I began to think about how teachers can help during these tricky moments when students might feel isolated, or worried that they won’t fit in. Straight away, I wondered if the strands of thought and behavior which we’re increasingly seeing in modern society – selfishness, egotism, the dismissing of others who are too different from ourselves – might be impacting today’s students’ social and educational experiences in the classroom. Perhaps the best question is: how could they not? Movies, pop music, TV shows, and above all social media have all become conduits, it appears to me, for a new level of suspicion and disdain; our discourse has, partly due to the very mediums we use, become troublingly curt, brief, and often ego-driven. It appears our society is becoming more and more narcissistic and less and less empathetic. Here’s 6 how-to rules on how I try to teach tolerance and acceptance using emotional intelligence in the classroom.
Rule 1: Empathy Above All Else
I have always had the aim of helping students to become both academically and personally successful. The building of key skills such as compassion and altruism takes time and focus, but in the context of this troubling, xenophobic tone we’re hearing from society in many corners, I feel it’s never been more important to take the time, effort, and energy to teach the necessary emotional and social skills. A student’s classmates will be vitally important for learning to perceive and then practicing empathy, but the momentum and direction must invariably be modeled by the teacher.
Rule 2: Laugh About It
Classrooms can be stuffy places where students feel intimidated and inhibited. To break down some of these barriers, I’m always ready to laugh at myself, and to find ways of bringing a smile to my students’ faces. I bring in jokes that connect with the subject matter and encourage students to do the same. If we’re laughing, the task of learning doesn’t seem so challenging, and the awkwardness of being singled out, for example, in front of one’s classmates, is mitigated. Mistakes become less important and more trivial, and not occasions for worry or self-doubt.
Rule 3: Listening is Learning
This is a very subtle task. We often think we are listening, but often we are planning our next words or a clever rebuttal. So, for my students I always emphasize listening to each other and respecting the comments that classmates make. This can be done very simply, through simple gestures (‘wait’, ‘carry on’, ‘say that again’, ‘say more about that’) and facial expressions which connote my enthusiasm for the lives of others, and my good-natured concern that some classmates might not be listening as attentively as I’d prefer.
Rule 4: Walking in Another’s Shoes
Readings, role-plays and class discussions are good opportunities to tease out those moments in life where optimism or consequential thinking might usefully come into play. If you’re reading about the European migrant crisis, for instance, you might ask your students to verbalize just what a migrant has been through, and to imagine their fear and insecurity. What EQ skills might benefit these individuals? When examining government policies, hone in on the individual people who might be impacted, and imagine the effect of the policy on their day-to-day lives. What EQ skills might be needed here? All of these questions emphasize the practice of humanizing others; when doing this, we tend to find that their troubles and desires are just as legitimate as our own. Finding a solution together for a tussle on the playground (empathy) might be as simple as imagining the world from someone else’s point of view; successfully debating and negotiating the stops in a class field trip often comes from standing in their classmates’ shoes. We can never do enough of this.
Rule 5: In Praise of Empathy
We can make empathy a habit. Habit guru Charles Duhigg’s says “ If you can identify the right cue and reward—you can establish almost any habit.” When students seize upon an opportunity for empathy, make a point of thanking them for doing so. When you see them practicing their optimism when a big test is approaching, congratulate them. When you notice they are identifying the pros and cons of a decision, celebrate. Each example adds to your students’ store of knowledge and experience, and very gradually builds up a tendency to seek out ways to think differently about how they treat others and the decisions they will make. Of course, doing so is its own reward, but a word of gratitude reinforces just how positive this manner of thinking can be.
Rule 6: Class Credo Over Rules
I have found through 77 years of experience, that every meeting, table talk, seminar, workshop, and/or even graduate classes needs a short page of ‘rules’ by which all agree to abide. Creating these together—along with the consequences of breaking the rules—makes it easier to enforce them. In fact, the individuals/students will point out when a rule is being broken. So, I’ve found initialing a formal-looking contract to be an excellent method of focusing my students’ (from kindergarteners to graduate students) minds on their attitudes and behavior. I keep a copy of the agreement pinned to the classroom wall for ready reference during those moments where a student forgets. The list should include encouragements to listen to each other, respect a variety of opinions, and never to make disparaging remarks about someone’s appearance or background. In this sense, it becomes a class Credo, defining and articulating the group’s guiding principles. Also, on the list should be: treat everyone fairly. Here, I use Thomas Jefferson’s definition of equality:
By its very nature, a deliberate policy of giving everyone what they need in terms of time and attention shows your students: 1) that they are all valued, and 2) that the amount of the teacher’s time a student receives is defined neither by their gender or ethnic group, nor by their level of academic achievement.
One way I check up on myself as whether I am meeting my goal is to record my class (audio or video, preferably both). I always discover some unexpected traits or habit of which I was not aware. A sober and responsible review of these recordings can – in my experience – teach me as much about changes I need to make as a formal visit from the principal or superintendent.
Being Open to Life Lessons
Both teachers and their students will always be living in an arena of uncertainty—filled with expected challenges often followed by hopelessness and helplessness. I believe it is my responsibility to provide a more humanistic way of seeing the world. I like to contrast isolationism with inclusion and acceptance, and to demonstrate that hatred and suspicion are very infrequently justified.
What are you doing in your meetings or classroom to build and reinforce emotional intelligent behavior? Openness, love and a readiness to communicate will assist my students in making friends and taking a realistic, evidence-based view of the world. The teacher who create the circumstances in which students develop these emotional intelligence skills is the teacher whom the students remember forever and strive to emulate.