Empathy: The Foundation of Authentic Communication

“Until and unless people communicate authentically with others, in ways that facilitate trust and understanding, schools will not realize their mission as learning organizations.”

Fault-finding judgement v. No fault interpretation

The beginnings of my teaching career coincided with the publication of “A Nation at Risk”. Ever since, there has been a stream of commission reports that cast a critical eye upon public schools and teachers. Each of these reports analyzes “the problem”, makes judgements as to who is at fault, and suggests how “the problem” can be fixed. It is not a surprise that this methodology has trickled down to the district and school level. The “find the faults and fix ‘em” approach will never foster growth; empathy fosters growth.  When we empathize with another person’s experience we are seeking to understand how that person makes sense of their experience. Understanding requires listening and clarification, not analysis, judgement and prescription.

The Tschannen-Morans employ the language of  Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) model to create a process of empathic reflection that leaders, coaches, and peers and use when listening to each other’s stories.

Observe – Think of yourself as a camera. You are capturing the experience, not evaluating it.

Recognize Feelings –  Sift the story in order to discover and reflect the feelings the other experienced. Discard the evaluations or judgements that might be attached to these feelings.

Discern Needs – Use probing questions to reveal the needs that are motivating actions. Separate strategies – the actions teachers are currently taking to meet their needs – from the needs themselves.

Make Requests – Ask teachers to declare what next steps they might or will take. Frame this as a question. “What next steps are you willing to take?”.  A request should be stated as invitation that allows the teacher the freedom to decline.

What strategies have you used to create empathy with others? Tweet your idea to …

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Empathy: The Essential Ingredient for Growth

If we want [teachers] to meet the needs of all students, we need to model with them how that is possible, by meeting the needs of all teachers.
Jane Kise – Differentiated Coaching: A framework for helping teachers change (2006)

At a recent meeting, my school district’s curriculum director stated that, “optional teacher professional development is the reason for the student achievement gap”. This statement could be unpacked in many ways, but it highlights the critical role professional development plays in addressing the number one educational crisis of our time.

The curriculum director felt that voluntary professional development was inadequate, inefficient, and diminished the district’s capacity to effect transformational system change. Others felt that the district’s compulsory professional development had resulted in high absenteeism and unengaged passivity. Everyone at the table recognized that years of voluntary and compulsory district professional development had not produced the desired system change. This was a passionate and important discussion, and has a direct relationship to the next element of evocative coaching, empathy.

If professional development is going to truly change the work of teachers and the achievement of students, it must be empathetic.  Simply stated, empathy is our respectful, no-fault understanding and appreciation of someone else’s story.  An essential ingredient in the story – listening process, empathy is “a lubricant for change and a glue that holds people together”.

How Does Empathy Facilitate Change?
When teachers feel that their stories are appreciated and accepted, they are ready and willing to take the risk to move forward and grow. Principals, coaches and peers can foster an empathetic culture by resisting the urge to judge, analyze, compare or suggest.

Wow, that’s going to be difficult. Isn’t that what teachers do? Analyze, Judge, and Suggest.

Rather than jump in to fix the “problem”, we need to listen and connect with what is beneath the surface, the “stirrings of what might become” and help each other move forward.

How does your empathy help others grow?

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