The Reflection Pool

When Empathy Isn’t Easy

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?