Nurturing Intentional Empathy

June 3, 2023

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

Exploring emotions and their sources

Dear collaborative discussion friends,

This week we are highlighting an activity that helps participants practice intentional empathy by viewing a situation from someone else’s perspective and diving deeper into what they are thinking and feeling. This activity helps participants respond by reflecting back the emotion they perceive the other person is experiencing and exploring the sources of these feelings. Participants also discuss how the practice of intentional empathy can help create a safe space for collaboration.

This activity is contributed by Lori Britt, Professor at the School of Communication & ICAD Co-Director at James Madison University, and Noah Miller, a former Education Intern at the Interactivity Foundation. It is one of the many activities in the Culturally Responsive Collaboration Module.

If you missed the previous newsletter, Understanding Perspectives on a Continuum, you can access it and our other weekly newsletters by subscribing below.


This week’s activity:

Activity 4.5 – Nurturing Intentional Empathy

Building empathy by identifying and responding to emotions as well as exploring their sources

This activity first introduces participants to the concept of intentional empathy and how it differs from traditional concepts of empathy. It engages participants in crafting responses that include open-ended questions that explore feelings and the situations that prompted these feelings. By encouraging participants to refine their initial responses through multiple iterations, it helps them move beyond problem-solving to questions that help them gain greater insight into others’ perspectives.

Activity 4.5 – Nurturing Intentional Empathy

Introduce Intentional Empathy

Begin this activity by sharing the following introduction to the concept of intentional empathy:

“Traditional notions of empathy tend to encourage individuals to place themselves in another’s circumstances and consider how they would react. It is a cognitive maneuver. Intentional empathy is when individuals try to place themselves in another’s circumstances–in their shoes– and make a sincere effort to engage with their thought process and emotions from that perspective. This additional facet of viewing issues through the other’s lens (and not just circumstance) allows for individuals to gain a fuller appreciation of others’ perspectives and experiences and can allow for the development of a greater psychological safety net within the group.

Building empathy in collaborative discussion requires us to not only recognize and respond to the emotions, but to inquire and explore with others the circumstances and situations which prompted these feelings. This exploration also helps ensure we are not acting from generalizations or assumptions about why people are experiencing or expressing emotions.”

Share the two elements required to respond with intentional empathy:

  • first acknowledging and reflecting back to the speaker the emotion that you sense they are experiencing and
  • asking a question that would help the person responding understand the circumstances that have generated these emotions

Next, provide participants with one of the two scenarios and the Emotion Wheel in this Intentional Empathy Scenarios slide deck, by editing and sharing it with participants as an online document or as hard copies.

Tip: If you have enough time, you can do both scenarios instead of picking just one.

Break into Small Groups and Review the Scenario

Have participants break into small groups (4-8 ppl) or pairs, depending on the number of participants. Invite participants to review one of these two scenarios and, if they would like to, read the script out loud in their small groups or with their partner.

Scenario One (recommended for classrooms):

Students working on a group project, which counts for a significant part of their grade, are experiencing some challenges. Here is an exchange between two group members:

Student 1: I know I did not make the meeting last night but my schedule is nuts and I figured I could just email you an update about my part.

Student 2: But we needed you here to think with us. And I keep reminding the group this project is supposed to be a group effort, but no one seems to pay any attention to this.

Student 1: We are all working on parts of it, so we are making it a group effort. Plus, there is no way I could have been here last night. I had to pick up another shift at work.

Student 3: I have to get an A on this project. My GPA depends on it. I am applying to law school and I really need an A in this class.

Student 2: Well the only way we will get an A is if everyone stops flaking and shows up for meetings!


Scenario Two (recommended for community groups):

A group of concerned community members have been engaging as an advisory group to help the city improve local transportation options. Here is an exchange within the group.

Participant 1: We have been focusing on bus service quite a bit, but I think we also need to consider how the city might set up a formal mechanism for ride sharing as well.

Participant 2: But ride share programs overlook the reality that many people face. As usual, it seems as if solutions are geared toward those who have and can afford options.

Participant 1: But our bus ridership numbers are way down so we need to look at other transportation options.

Participant 3: You want to know why ridership is down? Because they have changed and decreased the bus routes. There is not one route that I can use every day at the same time to get to work. People are not using the buses because they have been forced to find other ways to get to work that are reliable. I have been late to work 5 times this month. I can’t lose this job.

Craft Responses that Express Intentional Empathy

Have participants review the Emotion Wheel included in the slide deck (and also shown below). Explain to participants that their goal is to write a response that includes a question for Participant One to ask that:

  • recognizes and names the emotion they think they are hearing (of either participant 2 or 3) and
  • helps them and others recognize the source of these emotions

Tip: On their first try, participants might not be able to craft responses that express intentional empathy. Often, their responses might instead try to fix the issue by offering solutions. This is expected and can be a great opportunity for participants to recognize that their first instinct is to problem solve. So, don’t try to prevent or discourage this.

Emotion Wheel used with permission of Geoffrey Roberts

Refine and Edit Responses

Encourage participants to edit their responses until they succeed in creating questions that demonstrate true intentional empathy and no longer try to problem solve.

Debrief as a Full Group

Come back together as a full group and discuss:

  • What does it feel like to reflect a person’s feelings back to them? Does the Emotion Wheel help you name emotions?
  • How can asking questions help us to recognize the cognitive dimension of emotions? Does making this connection build empathy?
  • How would demonstrating intentional empathy impact group dynamics?
  • What role might sustained empathy have for group dynamics? How might you follow-up and check-in with group members?
  • How would intentional empathy advance collaboration?
  • When is intentional empathy NOT helpful in a collaborative experience? When should it be avoided?

In addition to these debriefing questions, the full description Activity 4.5 Nurturing Intentional Empathy includes reflection questions, a practice journal prompt, and additional resources to help participants dive deeper.

If you try out this activity, please share with us what you think:

Rate Activity 4.5

We hope this toolkit activity helps participants learn and practice intentional empathy to deepen their understanding of others’ experiences and create a psychologically safe space for effective collaboration.

Upcoming Events

  • The School of Public Affairs at American University is hosting an online conversation about dialogue and pedagogy, “Can We Talk? Defining, Practicing, and Protecting Dialogue in Higher Education” on June 13th and 14th from 1pm – 5pm (EDT). Over the two days, this event will have four 90-minute sessions, each beginning with a short keynote followed by an interactive facilitated discussion. All are welcome! Register here.
  • We are also accepting nominations for our Pilot Coach Training for Undergraduate Students which will take place this fall. Space will be limited. You can learn more or nominate a student by emailing Shannon at [email protected]

Looking forward to collaborating,

Ritu Thomas & the Collaborative Discussion Team

Interested in working with us to bring better discussions to your classroom, community or workplace?

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