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Empathy is the key to success in the world our children will inherit.

The Role of Empathy in Today’s Framework for Success

What does your child want to be?

When I ask my oldest, who is six years old, what he wants to be, his list goes on for minutes. He wants to be a husband and a funny dad, just like his father. He wants to be a doctor and a video game designer. He wants to be a volunteer at the forest service. He even wants to be a grocery bagger at the local grocery store so he can, “tell jokes to the elders when they buy groceries early in the morning.”

The list goes on. At first glance, it looks like these choices have little in common. It did to me, anyway. But there is something each of his choices has in common both in inspiration and practice.


Empathy is a basic human skill that helps us build and maintain healthy relationships with ourselves and others. A life without empathy is cold and empty.

You know that.

I know that.

And now, the business world knows that.


“Overwhelmingly, empathy tops the list as the most critical driver of overall performance. It also consistently relates to higher performance in each of the four leadership domains.”


All aspects of our lives—work, marriage, friendships, etc.—have become egalitarian. It’s no longer possible to get through life without being able to participate in mutually beneficial conversations. Even leadership has evolved from a role of dictatorship into one of service through active listening.

Nurturing empathy during teenage development is pivotal to ensuring life-long success.

Empathy is a leadership skill. Studies on successful leadership have long rested on evangelizing the traits of the stereotypical extrovert: boisterousness, authoritarianism, quick decision making and the ability to present well to a crowd. They talk long and often, and are able to get the job done.

Of course, this thinking worked back when it took weeks, months, even years to get a true analytical view of how well a team functioned toward a goal.

Though long considered a soft, and in the past, undesirable skill, recent studies have proven that empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is critical to driving performance of individuals in a working group. It’s especially critical now that no one is safe just sitting on the sidelines, going through the motions.

What’s next for kids? Sadly, empathy is in decline, an issue with far reaching social and ethical ramifications. But we can bring it back.

Modeling is the most effective way to teach empathy. As mentors, we have the power to nurture our young ones’ understanding of others’ feelings by validating theirs. Teens also need help labeling their feelings, and being encouraged to stay in their feelings even when they are uncomfortable.

When teaching empathy, it’s important to stress that one doesn’t need to understand the cause to understand the emotion. Furthermore, feelings do not need to be fixed; they change on their own when an underlying need is met. Therefore, the most effective way to empathize is simply by sharing.

Empathy also grows from examination of fiction. Literature and theater give youth an opportunity to examine and experiment with emotion. Further, literature and theater encourage teenagers to examine emotions, thus they learn how to label feelings to better understand themselves and others.

Empathy is vulnerability. A primary reason for empathy decline is the negative stigma associated with feelings as weakness. Overcoming the social stigma of displaying emotion relieves those who brave the emotional space of the burden of shame levied by onlookers, and empowers everyone not only to display, but to expect empathy with their feelings.


Empathy is an important part of the Waldorf Curriculum.

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