When Empathy Isn’t Easy

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We talk a lot about empathy in schools.  People able to feel empathy are happierID-100140371, have better relationships and are more successful.   Empathy is essential for our society to function in a caring way. So we teach lessons about empathy (it’s one of the HWDSB Character Traits), we help students understand why it’s important to walk in others’ shoes and we often focus on caring and inclusivity.

But what about the adults? Do we consistently practise empathy?

I remember working with some staff members in schools that I just didn’t “get”. It was a challenge for me to understand where they were coming from because they were so different from me. They probably felt exactly the same way about me!  And that led to some clashes.

As educators, we come into contact with many different kinds of people with varied backgrounds, religious beliefs and values and lots of different personalities. The teacher next to us may be on a completely different page. The parent or caregiver who comes in to see us may speak in a way we don’t relate to. We may work with a difficult student whose challenging behaviours make it hard to like them.

As readers of this blog know, I have room to grow in many areas. When empathy isn’t easy, I can rush to judgment and forget that I need to put myself in that person’s shoes and to think about where they are coming from.

The “Bell Let’s Talk” campaign to reduce stigma about mental health aired a series of commercials to show how people often react to mental illness and how we might show more empathy. The videos are brilliant! You can find them here.

What can I do when empathy isn’t easy?

1) Rewind the script. Sometimes, like in the PSA’s above, we can get stuck in a judgement loop. How can we respond in a different way?

2) Ask: what can I do differently?  In his Leadership Freak blog, Dan Rockwell talks about how it’s not about changing someone else, it’s about changing how we react. That’s not easy, because sometimes we’re full of righteous indignation – “They should change, not me!”

What about you? When do you find that empathy isn’t easy?

An Introvert in an Extrovert World

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I’m an introvert. There, I said it. If you know me, maybe you don’t believe it.  Let me explain.

In Quiet: the Power of the Introvert in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain brilliantly explains the large body of research and her own personal experience around introverts and extroverts. She makes a convincing argument about our North American culture and how it often values and rewards extroverts. Cain also points to how introverts often learn extroverted behaviours to be successful in society and at work.

This book has sparked many conversations with colleagues and friends.  Fellow self-identified introverts feel supported and vindicated. There’s a feeling of “finally, someone gets me.” I know some extroverts too – in fact, I live with one – who found the tone of the book faintly negative towards extroverts. One of them told me she thought Cain painted extroverts as “happy, dumb partiers.” That might be a bit extreme, but I get her point.

Cain has a handy little quiz here that helps pinpoint your preferences. Human beings are complex and we all have some combination of introvert and extrovert tendencies.

Being an introvert does not mean that you don’t like people. It doesn’t mean that you’re particularly shy. It doesn’t mean that you’re some kind of weird hermit. It does mean that you recharge your batteries from being alone. Introverts enjoy social occasions, but in small groups or one on one.  I always wondered why others around me were up for socializing late into the night, but I was ready for some alone time. As I’ve matured, I know that I need to prepare myself for large gatherings, whether a party or a professional conference. It’s really a form of rehearsal. John Spencer, a very thoughtful education blogger at Education Rethink, recently wrote a post about this very thing. He has some great strategies – you should read it. It might help you understand us introverts a little better.

Understanding yourself is always valuable. Quiet helped me peel back a couple more layers. I love the diversity in humans, whether introvert, extrovert or somewhere in between. We have more in common than we are different.

Wanted: Learning Organization that Seeks Problems

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Problems can shut everything down. Sometimes the problem feels so big that we can’t see a solution. We give up. In a learning organization, the only way to overcome is to seek those problems out, putClassified them under a light and work together to find solutions. Sounds so easy, but I know it’s not.

Peter Senge‘s vision of a learning organization is inspiring and exciting as described in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. According to Wikipedia, he says it’s “a group of people working together collectively to enhance their capacities to create results they really care about”. Wow! That’s an organization I want to be part of. Our district’s strategic directions echo his five characteristics, and we are trying to work in structures to move toward shared vision, personal mastery and team learning.

Senge also suggests that problems can stall the process of learning. This comes up for me when I hear people say, “We’ve always done it this way.” I get it. The way we’ve always done it is comfortable, it’s part of our culture and trying to change it seems to involve so many people and structures. And a lot of people get angry when you try to change something we’ve always done to solve a problem. They come up with loud counter arguments, they post on social media, or they call the mainstream media. It’s hard to move forward.

Still, I don’t think it’s a reason not to try. Although I may want to run from those tricky problems, give people that shout the loudest their way, or work quietly away in my own little corner, I need to always have the courage to face the issues, have the hard conversations and find solutions. And I certainly can’t do it alone. We need educators and partners with a growth mindset who have a nose for problems and want to collaborate to learn how to solve them. Let’s seek them out together.