WITH pretty much the entire world reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic, the concept of empathetic leadership has shot straight into the spotlight.
A study by Trinity College showed that countries with female leaders have six times fewer Covid-19 deaths compared to male-led countries, a fact that has been widely attributed to a more empathetic approach by women leaders.
Coincidentally, in Malaysia, the annual #StandTogether National Kindness Week movement had chosen empathy-based education as its focus for 2020, and Tribeless, an innovative young company, will be providing the foundations.
Founded by Wong Gwen Yi, Tribeless has been running empathy skills workshops for groups ranging from schools to corporates - and even the Obama Foundation!
And now, they’ve designed an experiential online empathy programme for #StandTogether and the Education Ministry known as The Kindness Tour, which will be run for over 750 schools in every state in the country via Zoom.
“Back when I was in school, there was a disproportionately heavy emphasis on achievement and academia — sometimes at the expense of our individuality or wellbeing,” said Wong.
“Creating an empathetic approach in schools is simply seeing both students and teachers as human — with their own needs, wants, fears and dreams — and creating spaces for both parties to fully express and explore what they want to do and who they want to be.”
What inspired you to want to teach people to be empathetic?
In 2016, I had a massive mental health breakdown. It caused me to drop out of university, give up on my Silicon Valley dreams, and move home to Malaysia. It was the loneliest, lowest point of my life. I realized how much I craved open, honest, mutually supportive conversations with other people who wouldn’t judge me or give me unsolicited advice.
I started hosting dinner parties for people to gather, with one explicit rule: No Small Talk. The more dinner parties I hosted, the more I noticed a pattern: even though the guests and venues and topics were always different, the safe space remained. People were laughing, crying, and opening up about things they hadn’t even told their friends or family.
What makes a person feel safe enough to share their life story with a group of people they’d just met? The key factor, we discovered, was empathy – the ability to feel and relate to another human being.
Slowly but surely, I began to heal. I gained the courage to start being more vulnerable and authentic with the people around me. It has led to fuller, richer relationships – and a much more meaningful life.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about your work?
That empathy should come naturally to us. We are born with empathetic traits, but it’s like a muscle: we’ve got to use it, or lose it.
In the world we live in today, there are so many factors that conspire to make us less empathetic than we really are: social media filter bubbles, shorter attention spans, instant gratification at our fingertips, an over-abundance of knowledge (so everyone assumes they know everything before getting to know someone else’s perspective), etc. The good news? The more time and effort we invest into “building” our empathy muscle, the stronger it will be.
What are your thoughts about the #StandTogether Kindness campaign?
When I first heard about #StandTogether, it reminded me of an anti-bullying programme I watched on the Oprah Show when I was a teenager.
They brought the whole school together for a day, and taught them how to be open, honest, and kind. It was amazing! I remember wishing something like this would come to Malaysian schools.
The #StandTogether campaign is a very unconventional approach to the topic of bullying. Instead of fighting it head-on, it empowers students to focus on what they can do instead – understanding the types of bullying, developing practical empathy skills, and practicing kindness towards one another.
This creates a culture of compassion and support that will – hopefully – prevent bullying from happening in the first place.
The #StandTogether campaign is organised by R.AGE and SP Setia, with support from Unicef Malaysia and the Ministry of Education. Schools can sign up at www.standtogether.my, or by emailing email@example.com.
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