Empathy Training

story - empathy


She showed up to the school assembly, packed in alongside all the other middle schoolers in the auditorium, and was told to pair up with someone she didn’t know.  She and an eight grade girl made eye contact, smiled cautiously, and paired up.  Then everyone in the auditorium was told to do the following:

Step 1: Tell your partner your life story in one minute or less.  Ready, set, go.

She went first.  Then the eight grader did it.  So far so good.

Then, Step 2: Tell your partner one of your most proud or happy memories – in one minute or less.  And… go.

She told the story of when she won an art award at the County Fair this past summer.  Her partner told her about when her younger brother was born and all the joy his arrival brought to their family.

By the time they got to the third step, the girls had only spent less than five minutes together— yet they already felt connected.  Then they were told their next task.

Step 3: Tell your partner one of your most painful or embarrassing stories – in one minute or less.  

Now she had a choice: was she going to tell a “real” story or would she just B.S. her way through the exercise?

Ready… And… Go.

Knowing the clock was ticking, she didn’t have time to really think about it and so she went with her instinct and told the first story that came to her mind: that time last year when the girl she thought was her best friend ditched her for someone else, making it clear she didn’t want to be friends at all anymore, leaving her feeling rejected, displaced, and alone.

And then it was the eighth grader’s turn.

Ready, set, GO.  

She, too, didn’t have time to think about anything and quickly found herself telling her partner the story of when her parents split up a few years prior.  As she retold her family’s painful journey, all the emotions came back to her.  By the end of the account, she was talking through tears.

Then the roomful of middle schoolers were told to do the final step.

Step 4: Now tell your partner the story they just told you— the story of their most painful or embarrassing moment— back to them as if it were your own.  In one minute.  Ready… GO. 

Immediately, as she began telling the story of the eight grader’s parental breakup— as if it were her own— she began to cry.  She couldn’t help but imagine what it might be like if her parents ever argued that much and then chose to divorce.  The thought was unbearable.  For the first time ever, she genuinely considered what it would feel like to have such a thing happen to her.  And it hurt.  It hurt so deeply.  The eight grader cried too as she heard her own story told by someone else.  She heard it for what it was: Pain. Loss. Tragedy.

She couldn’t help but feel validated by hearing her story told that way.

Then it was the eight grader’s turn to tell the story of a broken friendship as though it were her own.  This, too, stirred up an ache inside herself as she imagined what it must have been like to be cast aside by someone with whom you thought your heart was safe.

Both girls walked away from the encounter changed.  They felt listened to.  Understood.  Valued.  Worthy.  And enlightened.

They had each grown during their time together that day.  Without even realizing what was happening in the moment, each of these precious young ladies had just had a firsthand lesson in empathy.

And they were each better for it.


walk away changed



[This is Day 21 of the Write 31 Days Challenge.  This year my focus is on the role of STORY in our lives.  Click here to get to the landing page with links to each post for this series.]

P.S. In gratitude to all of you faithful readers who have been reading along during this challenge, DaySpring is offering one lucky reader a $100 Shopping Spree to Dayspring.com!  Click here to enter yourself.

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What about you?

When have you listened to someone else’s story and experienced an unprecedented empathy?  What can you do this week to step out and listen to the journey of someone else in your community?

Please share your comments or your own story in the comment section below.


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