Sunday, April 1, 2018

Empathy is necessary

A couple of months ago I co-facilitated a Cognitive Coaching workshop in Malaysia.  During the course of this workshop I modelled a planning conversation where I talked about my struggle to plan for moving back to the UK to care for my mother who has dementia.  I felt very emotional talking about this, but at the same time I also felt a great deal of trust and support from the other participants in the room.  After the conversation several of them approached me with tears in their eyes to tell me that they were in a similar situation, or that they had experienced this themselves. Their empathy played a huge role in helping me get through the past month in England where I have had to actively put things in place for moving back there.

As I read the book Building Your Instructional Leadership by Fran Prolman, I read about emotional empathy and cognitive empathy.  Emotional empathy is our capacity to feel what another person is feeling, whereas cognitive empathy is our ability to understand and interpret another's thoughts and feelings.  Other authors have also written about empathy.  Daniel Goleman refers to emotional intelligence and Simon Baron-Cohen to the empathy quotient.  Empathy has 4 qualities:
  1. Perspective-taking: being able to step out of your own ego to notice someone else's.  To do this involves curiosity, inquiry and compassion.  These skills are vital to what the IB refers to as international mindedness.
  2. Withholding judgement:  judging what someone says has no place in an empathetic interchange.
  3. Recognising emotion in others:  being mindful and present in the moment, paying attention to others.
  4. Feeling with people:  to do this you have to be vulnerable.  This is the "sacred space" referred to by BrenĂ© Brown.  People feel the need for connection with others, and this occurs through empathy.
Getting back to the planning conversation modelling, it's clear to see that in order for connection to happen I had to allow myself to be vulnerable.  That's hard to do - it takes courage - but having done it people make connections and it helps.  I started to feel more supported, to feel better.  

Let's think about this in a school context.  

Around a third of any faculty are living with illusion - with the illusion that they have control - that bad things happen to other people but not to them.  These people do not know what they do not know.  They may not understand the pain that others struggle with in life, and they may not know how to show support.  They may be numb to vulnerability and may unintentionally say or do things that are thoughtless or hurtful because of their limited experiences.

Also, at any one time, in any school, about a third of your colleagues are struggling with tragic events outside of school that affect their livelihood or family structure.  They could be struggling with elderly relatives, or family members suffering with terminal illness, or with loss.  They might also be grieving someone who is still alive, such as children who are abusing substances or dealing with addictions.  We may never know how much courage it takes for someone to get up in the morning and turn up at school.

And at the same time, another third of the faculty are people who have experienced these things recently.  While they may now be on the other side of grief/stress, their pain is still recent.  These people can look at life through the lens of humility, vulnerability and wisdom.  They are kinder and gentler to the people around them.  The truth is not just that whatever does not kill you makes you stronger.  It's also that what you live through can make you more empathetic and caring.

Photo Credit: WolfS♡ul Flickr via Compfight cc

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