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Yes, You Can Successfully Teach Empathy Online

Building empathy and community connection online is definitely doable. As an organization that has designed in-person workshops based on the assumption that face-to-face interactions are critical to an empathetic experience, we were surprised. 

In late 2019–early 2020, we held a series of in-person “Mapping Ourselves” workshops in New York, Los Angeles, San Jose, and across Michigan. We focused on certain, loosely-defined groups: women, corporate teams, local businesses, public health workers, hospice workers, and youth. 

These workshops were designed to teach participants novel, visual tools to see their own care ecosystems more clearly — who was caring for who and how day-to-day life impacted their wellbeing — and to deepen their sense of connection with each other. Much of the time was spent in conversation and collaborative exercises.

The drawings they created guided participants in sharing their stories. They told and listened to their stories in small group conversations. Especially through such moments, people deepened their  empathy for and connection to each other. 

Through this collective self-reflection on care in their lives, participants saw how their lives were similar and different.

It’s worth pausing for a moment on the word “care”. In modern times, the action of “caring for” someone is often thought of very narrowly, limited to caring for “sick” people and those activities connected to medicine. We mean care much more broadly, as a part of being human. We are a very social species, and caring for those around us, actively contributing to their wellbeing, is something we all do.

Mapping Ourselves helps people see the reality of such human care in their lives, see the mutual reliance that provides a sense of wellbeing for the whole community.  While the tools help people to visualize this, most of the learning and discovery happened through conversation, sitting knee-to-knee in small groups or moving around in activities involving the whole class.

The outcomes of our Mapping Ourselves workshops  have been positive across the board. In Detroit, the executive director of a social services collaborative, who hosted a workshop, raved that the experience had exceeded her expectations, and generated a deeper commitment to the organization within her diverse community. 

In Ann Arbor, workers at a restaurant, who already had a tight-knit community, discovered there was so much more to know and appreciate about their colleagues. One woman became aware that her relationships had evolved from being co-workers to being friends to effectively being family. She had thought of herself as alone, and was overjoyed to realize that that was just not true. Many said that the conversations sparked in the workshop continued long afterwards.

Similarly, many students at San Jose State University came to better appreciate the richness of their connections, including family, friends, classmates, teammates, and fraternity brothers and sorority sisters. Others came to better understand why and how they might decrease their isolation and expand their social lives. One said she came to realize that “care is not a solo activity.”

 

 

In a rural community in western Michigan, high school students were aglow as they discovered that so many people cared for them, and that they themselves contributed significantly to the wellbeing of their families, their schools, and their communities. They were excited to learn about each other, and to come to understand how their lives were sometimes so alike and sometimes so different.

The core concept behind Mapping Ourselves is that by observing, visualizing, and analyzing our lives through the lens of care, and then sparking transformative conversations, people’s collective capacity can be harnessed to transform how we design communities and benefit physical, emotional, and social wellbeing.

The program is based on three key ideas:

  • Care Is The Heart of Community — Care is universal; all of us are caregivers, care receivers, and self-carers. Building inclusion and a sense of belonging requires an appreciation of the care people have for each other.
  • First We Have To See — We can only improve our situations if we can measure and visualize the invisible in our lives, our inter-connections, and the impact of day-to-day life on wellbeing. Seeing first, before jumping to a “solution”, allows openness to new opportunities.
  • Collective Exploration Is Essential — Exploration of our lives is more powerful when we do it with others in our community. Individual learnings are amplified through shared stories, which in turn strengthens the group’s sense of connectedness. 

We taught the workshop in either a half-day or all-day session. Either way, it was an in-person workshop, with all facilitators and participants in the same room.

Covid brought these workshops to a halt.

While Covid stopped our workshops, the health and economic impacts and the loss of human connection  also made people more aware of the wellbeing of their families, friends, and neighbors, and their dependence on so many others they had previously overlooked.

Suddenly there was a deeper sense of how interconnected we all are, and that because we care for each other — even strangers — we wear masks, physically distance, deliver food, forgive their rent. This awareness led to the realization that the Mapping Ourselves workshops were even more necessary.

So, we decided to try to rejigger the workshop into an online program, something we could teach using Zoom. Given that we had seen how critical the human-to-human interaction had been to the workshops’ success, we believed that the online version couldn’t be  as powerful as in-person. But, given the combination of an urgent need and an unknown future, we felt we needed to put our best efforts forward to translating our in-person workshop experience to an online format.

We launched our online Mapping Ourselves workshop with a beta group. We had consistently high engagement and attendance, participants found value in  every one of the Mapping Ourselves tools, and enjoyed learning from each other during the breakout sessions. To our surprise, the response was far more positive than we had expected.

How could that be? What had we done to make our online workshop so effective? 

The online experience is definitely challenging in many ways. There are technical challenges including poor internet connections and software problems, and many suffer from “Zoom fatigue”. Conversations about sensitive or personal  topics were harder because it is more difficult to sense how another person is receiving your story. Additionally, there is, in the nature of the screen, a separation and distance. Free-flowing, back-and-forth conversation is much harder online, and so people are more hesitant to speak up. Sharing drawings was also difficult, especially when participants used digital backdrops.

Nevertheless, by making good use of available online features, and redesigning the program to accommodate limitations, the online workshops were a great success. These were the four primary lessons we learned:

  • Slow down for faster learning — An 8-hour Zoom session would not have been well received. Some early feedback about the in-person workshops was that it was “information overload”, and that problem would have been exacerbated online. Instead, we designed the online program as a series of five, weekly, 75-minute sessions. By slowing things down in this way, participants learned a little at a time, just one or two new tools or concepts in each session.

Another major benefit was that participants had time to reflect on each of the tools and concepts, and to talk about their experiences and discoveries with family, friends and coworkers. This deeper reflection enriched the group’s conversation in the following session, and made it easier to learn the new material.

  • Flip the classroom — In our Mapping Ourselves in-person workshops, we spent time teaching participants how to use the visualization tools. We walk them through the steps of observing their lives using a data-collection sheet, then visualizing the data, and finally reflecting on their drawing. Those drawings and reflections are then shared with each other in small groups.

For the online workshops, we followed the “flip the classroom” strategy. During the sessions, we only presented an overview of the tools. Participants then learned and  used the tools, and reflected on their lives, as self-paced assignments between sessions using videos and written materials. They were encouraged to share their drawings with friends and families. Doing this maximized the use of class time for breakout sessions where participants shared their experiences with others, and allowed participants to learn the tools at their own pace.

  • Provide more opportunities for people to learn more from each other — Both the online and in-person workshops feature small-group, breakout conversations, with 3-4 people per group. Much of the actual learning and connection between participants happens in these small conversations. Participants learn more about themselves as they tell their stories and reflect on their lives  with others. They also learn about other peoples’ situations, and learn from the similarities and differences of others’ stories. 

For the in-person workshops, people generally remained within the same small group for the full program. The online workshop included two small-group breakout conversations per session ( ten over the course of the full program). Participants were assigned to groups randomly for each breakout. As a result, participants in the online workshops interacted with many more people, and got to hear about a wider range of experiences. The combination of deeper reflections (from slowing things down and flip-the-classroom) and more varied interactions led to more opportunities for learning about how people consider care in their lives, and for expanding their capacity to empathize with others.

  • Connect across geographies and other boundaries — An obvious benefit of online workshops is that anyone can join from anywhere; people do not have to be in the same physical space. This made it possible for groups of people to participate in the same workshop even if they were far apart. One of our workshops included people from six continents (sadly, no one from Antarctica), many on multinational teams. In our Michigan-focused workshops, there were people from across the state. Because of the deeply interactive nature of our online program, people strengthened or built new bonds.

As a result, online Mapping Ourselves workshop participants came to learn more deeply, both about themselves and about others. This experience of collective self-reflection and listening to others deepens empathy and our sense of connection with others. Seeing how we love, who we love, and when we love the best, and having visualizations to communicate this to others who are trying to understand generated and deepened empathy.

Except where noted, this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.