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Can empathy be taught?

Empathy? Tolerance? Understanding our fellow human beings to create a better world?

Soundbites in campaigns to develop better online relationships seem obvious to many of us but achieving positive change is complex. We all bring our own emotional “baggage” to these incidents, be that culture; language; behaviour; beliefs and experiences which has a dramatic influence on the outcome. When we are asked, for example to “Stand up to Bullying”, it’s quite a challenge and indeed risk, to do so without the appropriate routes and strategies. It can often make things worse if not managed well.

Empathy can take many forms and can be elusive to many of us. It is based on our ability to connect and communicate with others and form a sense of community; a sense of belonging.

Those tight community bonds can be very supportive but can also have negative influences. A particular group’s inability to respond positively may very well be due to negative attachment; those resulting “beliefs” may be embedded as part of upbringing; ethics and values. And yet, positive attachment is one of the underlying components of positive human mental health and well-being.

Both the immediate and atemporal nature of online engagement too often drives responses that are not considered or thoughtful. They are often visceral: unregulated and emerge from primitive parts of our reptilian, triune brain. Fight; flight or freeze.

Can we ever “park” these influences to affect real positive change? Margot Sunderland (Children’s Centre for Mental Health) as part of her intervention “Trauma Informed Schools” places attachment at the heart of her work. Empathy is a blend of thought (cognitive), feeling (emotional) and action (compassion) and she describes a set of Vital Relationship Functions that help map a successful empathetic engagement; moving someone from a state of dysregulation to a regulated, rational state.

  • Attunement: addressing the needs of the other person by understanding how they truly feel
  • Validating: assuring the person that what they are feeling is valid/real/has a name
  • Containment: keeping the engagement physically/emotionally safe for both parties
  • Regulation: moving a person from the reptilian brain to the thinking brain

These Vital Relationship Functions are very much evident in the activities we have developed as part of SELMA.

The SELMA Toolkit is founded on developing Social and Emotional strategies to tackle online hate, disrupting hate speech through understanding these complex behaviours. Each of the nine Toolkit themes begins with SEL activities that:

  • Build emotional vocabulary to navigate online relationships effectively
  • Encourage self-reflection about how online hate affects our own emotions
  • Explore strategies to assist with regulating our own emotional response to online hate
  • Develop strategies like metacognition to shape effective responses that can disrupt dysregulated behaviour
  • Equip users to identify and recognise the emotional state of others
  • Provide strategies to navigate online hate incidents through deeper understanding and empathy to disrupt a hate ecosystem, be it one to one, group or global

This unique and innovative approach to what is a visible and global online issue is a key founding principle of the SELMA Toolkit and sits at the heart of a wider set of focuses that include media analysis; media production; citizenship and peer support.

The SELMA team believe that not only can empathy be taught…but it should be taught if we want to equip generations to come with a skillset that will allow them to flourish in an online world.

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