During the snowy afternoon of last Wednesday, room 210 in the Instructional Building there was an empathy-building workshop.
Dr. Rosa Hong, assistant professor at the Department of Language Studies, and Dr. Liz Coulson, program undergraduate coordinator for education studies as well as part-time lecturer at the Department of Language Studies, co-organized the workshop, which was offered to the second-year education studies class, EDS220: Equity and Diversity.
“Rosa Hong had attended an event by Narrative 4 at Harvard Business School,” Dr. Coulson explained over an e-mail to The Medium, “She brought the idea to me and we applied for a grant through the language studies office which we received. We decided the most appropriate course would be in equity/diversity as my class goals align with this program.”
This workshop consisted of a story-exchange led by Lee Keylock, director of programs at Narrative Four, a non-profit based in the US that holds workshops at universities across the world to “build a global network of authors, educators, and students who use the power of personal story telling to build empathy and spark collaborative change.”
The workshop was held in collaboration with the Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre, the International Education Centre, and various student affairs offices, along with inviting special guests from the Dean’s office.
“The potential to build strong relationships between people is the rationale I had for bringing this to my equity class,” Dr. Liz Coulson mentioned, “which functions on the principles of inclusion and peace building.”
Lee Keylock began the workshop with asking the room what empathy meant to them and concluded the discussion by saying that “validating someone else’s experience is really important.” He then segued into an explanation of the importance of listening in building empathy, and what listening looked like.
“We try and stay out of judgement when we [listen] which is not the same as saying we don’t have judgement, because we do,” Keylock added.
Keylock then randomly paired every participant in the room and asked them to find a place in IB without distractions to share a story that in some way defined them. The participants could resort to the prompts given, or use their own. Narrative, as Lee Keylock stated, “is one bridge that you can put between people.”
“Being able to understand what others have gone through and to put yourself in their position is something that is very hard to do,” noted Coulson, adding that “The experience of the exchange and telling someone else’s story in first person is a powerful first step to experience what that might be like.”
After breaking for a refreshment, the participants reconvened and formed circles of 10-12 people where each member shared the story their partner told them, in first-person. Keylock reminded the participants that the stories, which were often vulnerable and private, would not leave the room.
According to Keylock, “When we understand where people are coming from or when we know someone and we understand their visceral experience with difficulty or alienation, it becomes,” as Coulson highlighted, “Very difficult to hate [them] up close,” because, as Keylock further stated, “There is nothing soft about empathy.”