“Empathy is a choice, and a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling”. During a management course in July, I came across a video (‘Brene Brown on Empathy’ you can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw ) which illustrated the differences between empathy and sympathy. The above quote stuck in my mind and since I have done some research on empathy and resilience two questions came up to my mind: how can we show that we care about our students? How can we show that we care about our colleagues? Empathy is definitely the key to accessing deeper conversations and connections with other people, but is it that simple?
Text by: Tanya Livarda
According to psychologists, empathy is the ability to recognize, understand and share the thoughts and feelings of another person or animal. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as the "the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner". In other words, the most successful interactions occur when someone feels that they are being listened to, valued and understood. It is the ability to connect with someone on an emotional level, understand their feelings (how they feel and why they feel this way) even if we are not able to provide a solution to their problem. It means that we understand their point of view even if we don’t agree.
So, why empathy?
- Build a positive and healthy classroom/work experience
- More engaged students/colleagues
- Higher academic achievement
- Better communication skills
- Less aggressive/ unhealthy competitive behavior
However, this does not mean that our colleagues or students will be empaths in just one day. Let’s be aware that we are living in the social media, selfie, me myself and I era. Therefore, it is important that we build strong school communities in which students, teachers, managers can play a vital role in helping students develop and demonstrate empathy.
- Model empathy
- Teach what empathy is and why we should care: activities like ‘how full is your bucket” or role-play games can act as an example of how to act on empathy.
- Practice empathy: role play games, books, posters, projects, giving a name to the barriers to empathy (stereotypes, bullying).
- Set clear expectations: Being an empath does not mean that we have to lower our expectations (as a matter of fact I am not a fan of expectations but instead of reflection and goals). There could be some guidelines or a common set of rules for non-acceptable behavior. Encourage students to think about the words we use and why these can hurt.
- Make empathy a habit: ask questions, validate our/their feelings,
- Be aware of the paralinguistic features, it’s not always what we say but how we say it.
- Actively listen: we normally listen to respond and not to understand.
Speaking of words, I cannot stress enough the importance of paying attention to the words we use. Words like ‘I understand’, ‘I see’, ‘I notice’, I would feel …. in this situation, too’, ‘I’m sorry’, ‘You’re right’ and ‘thank you’ can just show that we care and we actually understand.
But how about our colleagues? How can we demonstrate empathy without judging our colleagues? In today’s competitive world where everyone is trying their best to keep up to date and follow the trends, we don’t have time to incorporate everything. How can we demonstrate empathy when someone disagrees with someone oν an educational program or with an opinion and the ‘groupies’ start making fun of them, looking down on them and feeling sorry for them, just because they do not ‘follow’ them? How can we display empathy when there is a need to show off that we are the best? I think it’s time we made a serious discussion on what a true teaching community is.
So, in case we are wondering of course we have to care about our students and our colleagues. Empathy is just the first step and it is worth exploring it. What makes something better is the connection (Dr Brene Brown).
“Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care” (Theodore Roosevelt). And then they will care how much you know, I would add!