Empathy Image

This blog post has taken shape in the Paediatric Ward of our local hospital. To my right, through the salt splashed window panes, the powerful Pacific Ocean waves crash heavily upon the sand (I do find it intriguing that hospitals and cemeteries so often have the best views!). To my left, amidst the rhythmical beeps and colourful wires of medical instruments, lies my sleeping teenage son, who, through an unfortunate schoolyard accident (boys will be boys!) is the reason I am here. Whilst curled up on a worn, squeaky, red vinyl chair, I begin wondering about the other parents who have sat here before me, and the thoughts that had consumed them. My thoughts turn to my son and how he is feeling. Trying to put myself in his shoes, I begin reflecting on the role of Empathy – but possibly not in the way you may think.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others and, as it happens, was the foundational theme of the recent Families in Global Transition Conference I attended in The Netherlands. At the outset, keynote speaker, Christopher O’Shaughnessy, catapulted us into a sea of emotions. One minute we were laughing loudly as he recounted adventures from his cross-cultural childhood as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) and the next, we were weeping softly as he told the heart-wrenching story of a TCK classmate who struggled, almost to breaking point, through the challenges associated with frequent mobility. Chris is a captivating storyteller, who through his eloquence and cohesive dialogue, had me envisioning myself as each of the characters in his stories. I felt as though I understood the feelings of the characters he spoke about and felt their pleasure and their pain. Empathy.

Chris reminded us that domestically and globally mobile people experience a kind of “nudity” when they arrive in a new location. This cultural nakedness sees the newcomer vulnerable, powerless, a minority, on the outer and having to very quickly learn to deal with the new environment in which they find themselves. They have to develop strategies and work particularly hard to belong or connect with others. They know what it feels like to move from that cultural nakedness towards hope as they adjust to the “new normal.” This places them in an excellent position to be able to understand and share the feelings of others who are finding life difficult. Empathy.

Back to the beep, beep, beep of the heart-rate monitor in the Paediatric Ward, and the interruption of my thoughts, as the Doctor explained how he had inserted a large metal plate and multiple screws behind my son’s collarbone to connect, support and strengthen the bone as it healed. Healing would take 10 weeks – a long time in an active teenage boys’ life apparently! I’m not sure if it was the hospital smell or the lack of sleep, but I started dwelling on that plate and the screws that affixed it to my son’s bone.

A plate and multiple screws supporting a bone as it heals and strengthens…Empathy and a series of support mechanisms to help individuals through transition to a new place (physically and metaphorically)…the parallels became obvious. Now let me try to explain.

The plate in my son’s shoulder is like Empathy. The plate provides a solid foundation so that the two pieces of collarbone can connect and rebuild, apparently stronger than before. Empathy is a solid foundation required in our families, our schools, our communities and in our global society to bring about connectedness and hope so that we can be stronger – together – than before. As Chris said, “There is no such thing as a neutral interaction. Every interaction gives or takes life.” Through the ability to empathise, we can bring hope to every conversation and situation. In a world where loneliness is rife and the risk of death, as a result of loneliness, has increased by 26%, we need to intentionally bring Empathy back into the agenda, in the same way as we have done with exercise*. Empathy is the foundation for connectedness and connectedness leads to a sense of belonging. A sense of belonging builds self-confidence and self-confidence brings hope. Our world needs hope.

The screws in my son’s shoulder remind me of a series of characteristics, outlined by Chris (from a variety of sources) in his keynote address, that each of us can develop and harness in order to build a more empathic society. Whilst my son has 6 screws in his collarbone, here are 10 helpful characteristics for a more empathic society.

  1. Curiosity for strangers
  2. Challenge our own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what we share with people rather than what divides us
  3. The ability to directly experience lives and lifestyles of those different from us
  4. Being able to listen hard to others and do all we can to grasp their emotional state and needs
  5. Empathise with people whose beliefs we don’t share
  6. Strive to understand the needs, traditions and beliefs of the people around us
  7. Consciously understand the perception we create in others with our words and actions
  8. Understand the unspoken parts of our communication with others
  9. Attempt to more accurately predict the actions and reactions of people with whom we interact
  10. Experience the world in higher resolution, as we perceive through not only our perspective but also the perspective of those around us.

Interestingly, when I look at these characteristics, I see so many similarities with staff at the International Schools I visited in Europe and other people thriving in the Expatriate community. As the Global Society of 2016, however, we care about others 40% less than we did in the 1980s, yet research shows that we need interdependence to be healthy.** In the same way as the plate and screws in my son’s shoulder are bringing about connectedness, healing, strength and hope, are you prepared to lay the foundation of Empathy in your family, school and community whilst developing the characteristics required to bring about connectedness, healing, strength and hope to our global society? I for one, most certainly am and implementing Transitions Programs into schools with high mobility is just one area when I can make an impact immediately. Empathy.

Remember Chris’ earlier statement about interactions? “There is no such thing as a neutral interaction. Every interaction gives or takes life.”  Just as the healing process will take some time for my son, the healing process will take time for our global society but we can start it now – together. Will your next interaction give or take life? Thank you Chris O’Shaughnessy for your wisdom, inspiration and Empathy.


* Christopher O’Shaughnessy

** Christopher O’Shaughnessy

Image Credit: Rewire Me



2 thoughts on “European Enlightenment: Lesson 1 – Empathy

  1. Thank you so much for reminding us of Chris’s fantastic target points. You did a perfect job of reconnecting my emotions back to the first day of the #FIGT16NL conference. It is intriguing to wonder why hospitals and cemeteries have the best views. I also really liked the thoughts of how had also sat in that hospital chair waiting for their loved one to be released. I loved your blog.


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