Oct 14 • 4 min read

This is part five of a six-part series on using empathy in the classroom.

Students, like organizations, can be very good at knowing things, but can find themselves challenged when it comes to the “doing” part.

“By activating empathy, we can fuel connection and cross the knowing-doing gap,” says Bert Verhoeven, associate professor and program director of Innovation and Enterprise at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. “Empathy is an emotional perspective that takes in how you experience the world, (how you) feel, see, hear, think and do.” 

With support from the Fox School of Business, Flinders University has worked to bring its vision for the future of education to life and build an innovative, entrepreneurial workforce through its New Venture Institute.

Verhoeven outlines a series of experiential learning tools used for developing and applying the three stages of empathy in his presentation “Active Empathy: Walk in Customers’ Shoes, Create a Better Shoe, or Change the Shoe Industry?”

According to Verhoeven, cognitive (see the other person’s view) and emotional (feel what they feel) empathy skills help students more fully relate to a customer’s experience. Active (or compassionate) empathy skills help students to turn insights into action and create an improved user-driven product or even change an industry in response to their findings. 

“A major pillar for empathy development is experiential learning and that requires reflection on how you did,” he says. “To do reflection well, you need empathy. When you talk about what happened, you need to describe that in the analysis. Active empathy skills are needed to turn your findings into action.” 

Using the framework of its innovation and enterprise program, students learn about empathy over three stages at Flinders.

The first stage is the “Problem-Solution” fit where skills are learned through user interviews and observations with prototyping. 

“The interviews develop cognitive and emotional empathy skills,” Verhoeven says. “The prototyping helps to turn it into action (active empathy). You develop a solution and then test it for feedback.

“What we found is that the listening part is difficult for people and open questions are very difficult,” he says. “Reflective listening is also something students need to practice. No matter how well you think you are in reflective listening or open questions, it turns out that that’s a very difficult part of learning and we obviously haven’t learned that enough in our previous education.” 

In the second stage, students play the Entrepreneur Game to develop the Product-Market Fit and bring active empathy into practice. In the game, there are entrepreneurs and one user. The entrepreneurs interview the user about the job to be done, design the best possible solution and then attempt to sell that to the user. 

“We have also played this game with problems. How do you solve world hunger, for example,” he says. “It works very similarly and students learn to translate empathy about the user problem on their feet.”

In the third stage, teams of students participate in a negotiation challenge as they develop a Business Model and Scale Up. This is where learning comes together and ths skills in active empathy help  to understand the other party’s interests and emotions in order to keep the relationship going and develop new shared solutions.

“We believe that students learn through effort,” he says. “If they get rewarded for effort and persistence, and are praised for effort, then they will keep doing it even if they make mistakes. Obviously if they fail, they should not feel threatened. They should persist.

“You know you can do things better by going back to use your empathy skills and create a better understanding.”

Reflections on active empathy

  • Building skills in active empathy needs foundation in cognitive empathy and emotional empathy skills. 
  • Growth mindset as a pillar keeps students interested and engaged in learning and developing the three types of empathy skills.
  • Reflection on all three types of empathy is important for experiential learning and better empathy skills lead to better reflection
  • Skills in cognitive and emotional empathy help students walk in customers’ shoes, active (compassionate) empathy skills help students create a better shoe, or even change the shoe industry. 

For more information, view Verhoeven’s PowerPoint and video presentations on active empathy as presented in the 2020 Academy of Management Annual Conference.

This series is sponsored by the Fox School’s Translational Research Center (TRC), Fox Management Consulting (FMC), Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL), Department of Strategic Management and Fox Experiential Education; Temple University’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching (CAT), and Flinders University’s New Venture Institute

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