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Our Thoughts - Catherine Mitchell


You’re not meant to have a favourite socio-emotional skill... But mine is empathy. 

At the College, we describe empathy as being able to relate to others with “compassion; acceptance and understanding; and sensitivity to their diverse perspectives and experiences.” We also describe it as one of the key skills that practitioners can support young people to develop through high quality provision. 

To help with understanding whether that is happening, we break empathy down to look at both mental and behavioural skill indicators. Behavioural skill indicators are observable actions (things you can see) that would suggest someone is demonstrating empathy. They look like: 

  • Noticing when others are emotionally upset;  

  • Reflecting others’ feelings; and 

  • Responding to others’ feelings without taking them personally. 

Mental skills are about thinking processes – we can’t see these, but we might learn about them through conversation or by how they lead to someone’s actions. These look like: 

  • Understanding how others feel; 

  • Feeling what others are feeling; and 

  • Feeling bad for others who are worse off or whose feelings are hurt. 

Our theory is that when young people are supported to develop empathy within high quality provision, over time they will transfer this into other areas of life such as education, family, and employment. Empathy has a role in all these spaces, although it’s less likely that there will be focused support or attention on putting them to practice as we get older. This got me thinking – what would happen if we did take more time to reflect on how we are putting empathy into action at work? 

I think most people would agree that empathy has a role in the workplace; not least to create supportive and welcoming environments where we are kind and decent to one another. In the context of our work at the College, I think empathy has a specific role in enabling us to provide meaningful, responsive support and initiatives; whether that’s working with a practitioner who is struggling to find capacity for a project’s evaluation requirements, or hearing how a young person feels being asked questions about their identity for the purpose of monitoring. Empathy also plays a role in supporting folks to do their best work and thinking, providing space and opportunities to welcome diverse perspectives and ideas (and there’s tons online about empathy as a leadership essential). 

We’ve been developing a set of measures to understand how young people are develop socio-emotional skills, and the staff practices that enable them. As a colleague said to me recently – why shouldn’t we be using the same tools to reflect on our own skills and behaviours, and ensure that we too are modelling and encouraging them with everyone that work with? 

For example, I could take the statements in the Youth Rating of Socio-emotional Skills tool (YRSS) and ask myself: 

  • Is it easy for me to feel what other people are feeling in a workshop that I am running, and adapt my delivery accordingly? 

  • Can I respond to feedback about my ideas without taking it personally? 

  • Do I consistently respect other people’s points of view, even if I disagree or if it challenges what I’m hoping to get out of a meeting? 

Or I might take the Staff Programme Quality Survey (SPQS) and ask myself: 

  • Can I create a safer space for the practitioners that I support to share thoughts and feelings? 

  • Do I respond to biases expressed by people in a meeting space by addressing them directly? 

These questions can be really challenging to engage with, but I think that we should. For my work, in Organisational Learning (supporting practitioners to build capacity in high quality design, evaluation, learning, and improvement practices), this feels especially important to ensure that whatever capacity building opportunities we share are genuinely helpful and inclusive. 

So how can we do this? 

Personal commitment is part of it, but the environments in which we work are a key factor too. As another colleague pointed out to me, in the context of youth provision we focus heavily on the environments that best support young people to practice and demonstrate empathy. Whilst, as adults, we are at a different stage of brain development, we are still going to need certain conditions and cultures to do our best empathising. Some factors will be out of scope (and ‘culture’ is a big nut to crack), but there are factors that I think can be influenced, such as structures, time, support, and accountability to critically reflect and be self-aware, and building channels for observation and constructive feedback.  

This is something that I am going to try to centre as I work on building our support for organisations, and the ways in which we embed quality assurance and continuous improvement within that. Rooting socio-emotional skills at the heart of it feels like a good opportunity for us to ‘walk the walk’ and bring our core framework to life in a different way. I’m motivated about what we might be able to do if we start intentionally reflecting on and practicing our own empathy skills at work – could we challenge ourselves to really raise the bar on how we interact with each other? Can we provide better support for young people if we all get more fluent in our own empathy skills? At the very least, could we do our work with more compassion, acceptance and understanding, and sensitivity to the diverse perspectives and experiences of everyone we work with? I really hope so. 

If you’re interested too, then I invite you to take those behavioural and mental skills indicators that I shared at the start, and take 15 minutes this week to reflect on how and where they show up in your work. I’d love to know what you think!