• Blog
  • »
  • For schools
  • »
  • Video: Building empathy through active listening in the classroom

Video: Building empathy through active listening in the classroom

/ Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad

Educators today encourage students to share their voice, spread their ideas and develop communication skills through effective storytelling. However, in order to fully support student voice, we must also develop the right conditions in which their voices can make an impact.
When students share their voice, they want their listeners to fully experience what it’s like to see the world from their perspective. This is empathy. Teachers often hear that the best way to connect with their students is to empathize. So how can educators better encourage empathy between themselves and their  students, as well as among groups of students?
First, let's acknowledge that it can be a challenging endeavor to experience a deep sense of empathy, especially if one has not shared  experiences similar to those of the other person. Showing true empathy requires exploring why the person feels or experiences the world in a certain way.
Empathy isn’t created by listeners guessing the speaker’s intent or imagining what it's like to be in someone else's shoes. In fact, empathy starts when listeners stop guessing at what’s on the mind of students and peers, and instead learn to actively listen.
Teachers can express empathy towards their students by asking students to share their thinking. When a student shares their thinking, they are expressing their understanding on an intellectual level, as well as revealing in detail how they think and feel about a particular experience or concept. When student thinking is effectively shared and heard, teachers and fellow students are equipped with the information needed to join in on the student’s perspective.

Four steps to build empathy

There are four simple steps educators can employ to encourage active listening and build empathy among their students:

  1. Listen to the story the student is sharing.
  2. Paraphrase the story the student just shared.
  3. Receive confirmation from the student that the story has been perceived the way they intended.
  4. Allow the storyteller to reflect upon the listeners’ perspectives.

Here is a example activity that follows these steps:


Ask students to pair up.

1. Storyteller has 3-5 minutes to share their story. Here are some story starters:

  • Because this happened this week at school, I want to change this next week…
  • My teacher or fellow students pushed my thinking in the following way…
  • This was something risky I tried and it worked…
  • I think I have this quality/characteristic because of this experience I’ve been through...

2. Listener is silent until time is up.
3. Teacher will announce that time is up.
4. Listener summarizes the storyteller’s message by restating the big idea, and reflecting on the feelings they felt when hearing the story.

  • “So, I heard you saying…”
  • “This is what I understand to be your emotion about…”

5. Storyteller gives feedback about how it felt to have the listener actively listen.

  • “I felt like I had something important to share when you gave cues that you were listening to me.”
  • “I felt valued when you were focused on listening to my story.”
Applying empathy and active listening to video creation

Let’s suppose students are asked to tell a narrative story using video. The students are tasked with expressing a particular life experience. Before creating their video, it’s important for the storyteller to consider the variety of ways their story may be perceived. Teachers can support this early process by having students first share their story verbally while others actively listen. Doing this simple exercise provides real time feedback  to the storyteller. Then, the storyteller can keep that feedback in mind as they move forward in creating their video.

Nurturing a classroom of active listeners

This protocol for active listening can be applied to stories told in person and to stories told through multimedia such as video. The beauty of this framework is that it requires something from everyone involved: the audience is tasked with active listening and building empathy. At the same time, it’s also important for the storyteller to actively take in feedback as they become aware of their audience. This multifaceted communication drives deeper collaboration and understanding among everyone involved. Active listening allows both the storyteller and the listener to develop a depth of understanding and provides a window of the storyteller’s values, levels of thinking, emotions and presuppositions behind their experiences.

What's next?

Let's continue the conversation on Twitter. What are your ideas and tips for how educators can encourage empathy between themselves and their students?  Be sure to tag #WeListenEDU in your response. We can't wait to hear what you have to say.