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Empathy's Non-Verbal Language

Six tips on how to reach children through our actions.

By Megan Noack

Megan is a journalism student at Brigham Young University. From a young age she wanted to help poor people on street corners. In Africa. Across the globe. She took international development classes in college and eventually discovered social entrepreneurship and Ashoka. Megan was able to combine her passions of writing and bettering society as she worked on the Empathy Initiative team during the summer of 2013.

July 10, 2013

I was seven-years-old, and my favorite color was blue. My outfit of choice was always blue jeans, an overly large blue shirt and blue tennis shoes. But when field day came that spring, my mom wanted me to wear something different. I arrived at school in a tie-dyed t-shirt, pink shorts and a braid down the back of my head. And I walked into class with tears pouring down my face because I thought I looked ugly.

My second grade teacher immediately came over to me and got down on her knees. She asked what was wrong and listened attentively as I related my oh-so dramatic tale of having to wear pink. She told me I looked beautiful and arranged for me to meet with the school counselor. My troubles were completely resolved an hour later, and I went on with field day activities as any other kid.


Bullying, parents' divorce, childhood poverty: each of these can leave children rightfully upset and in need of heightened care and attention. But children can just as easily get upset over smaller matters: a classmate not sharing, getting a homework answer wrong or coming to school wearing pink. Reminding a child that one failed math assignment is not the end of the world is key to instilling grit, resilience, and a host of self-management skills. However, rather than dismiss such feelings as trivial or unnecessary, great teachers understand that a child's concerns matter not because they're necessarily important for others but because they're important for them.

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To this day, I am still impressed with my teacher and her handling of such a silly situation. And her reaction to my frivolous dilemma highlights an essential component of empathy—communicating it non-verbally. While cognitive empathy involves listening and seeking to understand another person, empathetic body language instantly communicates concern and care for that person. It carries just as much weight as speaking empathetic words and phrases.

So, what are the most effective ways of showing empathy through our gestures? The non-verbal interaction between adults and children is actually not much different than that between adults alone. The point is that it is necessary to communicate effectively with children now if we are to teach them empathy on a non-verbal platform. That being said, here are a few tips on how to make children feel important, trusting and understood:

Put yourself on their level

Adults are larger in stature than children, so they often look down at children. And adults can seem intimidating as a result. Simply kneeling down alongside a child’s desk creates a sense of equality between adult and child because they are at the same level. This creates trust, and it makes children more likely to share their concerns.

Open Up

If your arms are crossed or your shoulders hunched, it shows you are guarded and do not want to interact with another. Meanwhile, a stance with shoulders back and hands open immediately communicates approachability; it says to a child, “I’m open to talk with you and hear your ideas.”

Make eye contact

When children avoid looking at a person, it usually means they are afraid to say what they're thinking or feeling. Adults are the same way. Holding eye contact shows a person you are interested in what someone has to say. It shows a child you are trying to understand him/her.

Nodding

Much the same, nodding is a silent communicator but a powerful one. It signals agreement. Thus, when a child speaks, simple nodding affirms, “Yes, I know what you mean. I know how you feel.” It also seems to say, “Keep going, I want to hear more.”

Actively listen

But of course, none of these are fully effective unless one actually listens. It can feel uncomfortable to listen without interjecting or to sit still long enough to fully hear a child's story without rushing to action. “Listening is always available to us, yet like many important practices in life, this power is both simple and difficult,” writes David Castro, Ashoka Fellow and founder of I-LEAD. “The key is to stop. Stop talking. Stop planning what you want to say. Let go of your own agenda. Focus on someone else. Find the rare strength to be quiet." David suggests doing the following exercise with a family member, friend, or colleague, as a way to spruce up your listening ability.
 
Connecting the verbal and non-verbal

A key element of successful non-verbal communication includes matching it with verbal communication. Disharmony between these two variables can lead to irritation and confusion of children, according to positive-parenting-skills.net. It can even create mistrust. That's why they suggest one way to determine the cohesiveness of your verbal and non-verbal cues is through watching children’s reactions. If children pull away, look away or kick their feet, it means they are probably intimidated by you. If they smile, they trust you. If they look perplexed, they probably are.*

Learning to interpret a person’s non-verbal cues “can be useful in making credibility assessments, evaluating truthfulness and detecting deception; and better information about emotional states (of people).”

Understanding a person’s emotional state is what allows us to empathize. When I came to school in tears as a second grader, my teacher took the time to get down to the same level as me and listen. She paid heed to both my verbal and non-verbal cues while communicating her own, and she was thus able to comprehend my emotions. At the same time, I instinctually trusted her.

That is the kind of communication, which brings about change. That is the kind of communication, which creates unity. That is the kind of communication adults and children both need because it works—even for a girl who cried simply because she wore pink.

*If you would like to test your skill at interpreting facial reactions, click here for a short quiz from by UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, a Start Empathy Partner.