Empathy: the most important 21st Century Skill

Looking Ahead

Alan November relates a discussion with the head of London-based HSBC Bank. Engaging him in conversation, Alan asked, “What’s the most important 21st century skill?” Alan admits that he was unprepared for the response: “Empathy.” It was counterintuitive. While we in education had been espousing the importance of such critical skills as creativity, collaboration and adaptability in a 21st-century global information economy, here was the head of one of the largest banks in the world citing a completely under-emphasized virtue. Alan readily admits he grappled with the idea for a while, but in the end he concluded it is true. Empathy is the most important of skills we should be imparting to students as we prepare them for life and work in the 21st century.

Empathy - the ability to identify with others - takes on a heightened role in an age where we are gradually merging to form a single global community. The Information Age is only going to bind us more tightly together as people, nations and economies. Empathy does not require us to give up our own perspectives, but to be able to integrate others’ perspectives with our own. Even fairly recently this was not a priority in conducting business and getting things accomplished. It was 1982 when Tip O’Neill declared that “all politics is local.” The world was segmented into smaller communities then. We had impact where we lived and worked. Events happening in other regions of the world seemed distant, even remote in their impact on our daily lives. But the geographical distribution of society has changed. Through global communication and collaboration we now network internationally on personal and business levels. Events such as the attacks on American soil on September 11, 2001 forever changed our perception that we are hemmed in by political and geographic boundaries that offered protection and detachment from the events of the greater human community. Today O’Neill’s notion sounds parochial and out of touch. Today politicians are moving in droves to social media tools to garner support and expand spheres of influence. Everyone contributes to the progress we are making not just in our local community, state or nation, but as global citizens.

Daniel Goleman’s work demonstrates how empathy fuels intrinsic motivation and effective problem-solving. In his theory of emotional intelligence, empathy is critical to social awareness. It allows us to intelligently build stronger interpersonal relationships that lead to improved informed decision-making. People who empathize well make others feel that their work is respected and worthwhile. Goleman identifies three distinct kinds of empathy:

Cognitive Empathy - knowing what others might be feeling and thinking

Emotional Empathy - intuitively sensing what others are feeling and thinking

Compassionate Empathy - combined cognitive and emotional empathy providing an understanding of others’ circumstances and feeling inclined to help

When Alan speaks of empathy as a 21st century skill, he refers to global empathy: the ability to perceive and appreciate personal and cultural differences across humankind. Certainly this requires a cognitive understanding of what is encountered, and to be truly effective there must also be an emotional sense of what others are experiencing; but compassionate empathy encompasses the true notion of global empathy. Compassionate empathy not only validates another’s background, experience and perspective, it also prompts a response – a call to action – that necessitates that we reach out and connect with others where we can jointly make a difference in the world.

Stepping back to consider this concept, it becomes clear that all our aspirations for our children in the Information Age are contingent upon their ability to empathize with those with whom they come in contact. We are moving away from self-centered and culturally-centric views of the world to embrace our global partners as open, receptive, willing, engaged, empowered counterparts who are ready to move forward together. Efforts to communicate, collaborate, create, innovate, problem-solve and transform will not be successful without global empathy. So how do we pass this on to the next generation?

Empathy is not something we teach, it is something we instill. How? By modeling, coaching, facilitating, moderating and promoting it across all areas of the curriculum. It begins with the empathy we experience one-on-one in our most immediate relationships and builds from there: friendships, small groups, teams, cohorts, classes, networks and beyond. It is not that the traditional geographic and political boundaries no longer exist, or that regional and national identities are not still valued. We embrace these unique identifiers even as we bridge across them to make higher level connections - empathetic and empowering connections - that move us forward as communities and societies and as a common global civilization. 


Read more by Walter McKenzie on ASCD EdGe