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Why empathy is an elearning superpower


Empathy is a fundamental skill for anyone seeking to create elearning that really connects and resonates with learners.

But how can you develop your empathy levels and use them to great effect in elearning? This post has some easy-to-follow suggestions.

Empathy Deficit

The world’s first empathy museum will be opening its doors in London shortly before going on an international tour. It’s been set up in response to fears that we are becoming less empathetic towards our fellow humans. Studies have shown that empathy levels in the United States have dropped by as much as 50% in recent decades, and the hope is that the museum will contribute to turning this trend around, and generally raising awareness about the growing empathy deficit.

Empathy is the ability to see the world through the eyes of another and understand and share their feelings. Ninety eight percent of people have the ability to empathise and it’s deep-rooted in our evolution, helping us build successful relationships and societies.

Empathy and elearning

In learning, empathy has long been recognised as an important skill for teachers and trainers. Author, Homa Tavangar believes it’s essential:

“This isn't just a nice thing to do; it's an essential, active skill. It's foundational to embracing differences, building relationships, gaining a global perspective, conducting richer and deeper analysis, and communicating more effectively.”

So given its importance, how does it fit into elearning?  In essence, there are two stages to using empathy in the design of elearning:   

  • Research and understand the audience

This has to go beyond the pure facts around age, gender and occupation into a more in-depth exploration of the target audience as people with emotions. What are their aspirations? What worries them? What do they think about their job? What makes them laugh? Getting to this deeper understanding requires time and effort as well as a good relationship with clients, subject matter experts and, of course, learners.            

  • Identify the best ways to connect

Having established an empathetic picture of the target audience, the challenge is to select the most effective and appropriate methods to connect. The choice of words, interactions, scenarios, images, colours and sounds all need to chime with the audience. The elearning needs to resonate with learners and respond to their needs. 

Grow your empathy

Some people believe empathy is like a muscle that can be improved through training and use. Here are some ideas on how to build up your empathy levels:

  • Pause and think

Rushing headlong into a project can undermine empathy because you haven’t invested in the time to reflect. You risk making assumptions and not getting to know the people and the challenges before diving in. A good idea before starting a project is to write down everything you think you know already about a situation as well as a list of all the unknowns. There’s more advice on the pause technique from the Start Empathy Initiative.     

  • Be a great listener

Listening is a core skill for an instructional or elearning designer, but it’s more than just taking in the information effectively. Empathetic listening or active listening is about understanding from the other person’s perspective; truly hearing all that is said both in terms of fact and emotion. Tips for being an empathetic listener include asking open questions, not interrupting and reflecting back on answers to confirm your understanding.    

  • Seek out new experiences

Having a narrow view of the world or a restricted experience can sometimes narrow your empathy. The wider your perspective, the more likely you are to be able to see things from the eyes of others. To help us all in this pursuit, the people behind the Empathy Museum have also set up the Empathy Library to help people broad their imagination.

  • Challenge your ideas

Everyone comes with their own assumptions and prejudices, so part of growing empathy is to challenge these as they arise. Social thinker, Roman Krznaric, thinks the best way to do this is to gain experience of other people’s lives – directly when possible. It may not always be practical for an instructional designer, but spending even a short amount of time doing the job you are about to create elearning for, will go a long way to improving your understanding.   

Empathy can make a huge difference to elearning, and help create courses that resonate with learners.

It’s a kind of elearning superpower, and one we can all nurture in ourselves, with a bit of practice.

Author: Rhea Stevens, Instructional Designer, Sponge