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Friday, May 13, 2016

The Power of Empathy

The Power of Empathy

By Gina M. Pleak
Ph.D. Student
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Be kinder than necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.
--J.M. Barry

As school leaders, it is imperative that we have positive human relations with our school community members.  At times, this may be difficult.  However, if we consider Barry’s quote above during those times, it may help us focus our energy in a way that will lend itself to a resolution. 
Empathy is a powerful skill for school leaders to use in order to build relationships with others.  It is the ability to understand another person’s behavior through the lived experience of our own perspective.  It allows us to communicate in a way that lets others know we understand what they are feeling and that we understand how and in what manner they are communicating to us.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote, “You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”  The old saying of put yourself in another’s shoes applies. In reality, we may not totally be able to understand anyone’s situation, but through an empathetic lens, we are at least making an effort of doing so. 
Some say empathy is an art, because it does not necessarily conform to linearity or strict laws of nature.  In its dynamic and ever-adapting form (to another’s circumstance), it not only creates, enhances, and maintains positive relationships, it also resolves conflicts and offers a therapeutic option when conflict cannot be completely extinguished.  It moves stages of grief toward acceptance more quickly, yet naturally . . .  readily. 
A famous quote from Dalai Lama is “Listen with empathy and speak with compassion.”  When parents, staff members, colleagues, parents, or students come to us upset, defiant, or hostile, a natural response for even the best of us may include defensiveness, passing judgment, or sometimes equally inhibiting, a rescue, when others are better left to solve their own problems. 
Another option is to listen, empathetically. 
By recognizing and acknowledging others’ perspective, you offer them a chance to validate themselves through supportive reflection and empowerment.  You provide them an opportunity for another to see an issue from their perspective.  This might be the first time, in a very long time that this was offered to them. 
We are not suggesting that this be done from a superficial level in order to pacify individuals (admittedly most all in K-12 leadership have this ability), but rather to put forth an earnest effort to view the circumstance in terms of how they are feeling; what they are going through; what they need done. 
To acknowledge as fellow human beings that we may have experienced something similar, yet not necessarily with the myriad issues complicating this circumstance, goes a long way in connecting authentically and showing that we honor the uniqueness of the present.
A question sometimes asked of us is, “In using empathy, are there times where relating the current situation to our own experiences is appropriate?”  Yes, if handled with caution.  As time heals all wounds for someone, the person sitting across from you will not necessarily be in a place for cognitive reassurance.  Traumatic and life-changing events simply don’t provide for a natural shot of resilience, while they are taking place. 
A better shot in the arm might be a nod, an authentic affirmation, and our showing others that we are relating (rather than telling them that we are) and proving through example.
For great school leaders, empathy provides such an opportunity.
Let us examine empathy’s tool kit.
To be empathetic, listening without interruption is a must.  Nonverbal communication is more important than the verbal.  It is more the tones, gestures, postures, and facial expressions, than the words used.  Awkward pauses may, at times, be unavoidable, and in those circumstances, we may be tempted to jump-right-in with our own thoughts and opinions.  After all, we’re people-fixers.  Or at least that is part of what society expects of us.
However, the better choice is to “inact.”
A preferred alternative, where there is choice, is to be quiet, empathetically.
Making intentional our decision to give others extra time to talk, think, and speak will provide us with more information about what they are going through.  It will also let them know we are there to listen and support them—not necessarily to solve the dilemma. 
Let us be clear: Empathy is not sympathy, nor is it pity. 
Great school leaders know the difference. 
Further, empathy comes easier to some of us than to others. 
For those where it is more a stretch, can we learn to improve it?  YES, as empathy is a social skill, developed or enhanced with intentional practice and reflection.
As we reflect again on Barry’s quote,  “Be kinder than necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle,” we might also bring to minds the next desperate parent, the next tale of toil, or the next attempt to invite rescue.  Then, in visualizing what we can do, compassionately and empathetically, as an alternative that empowers others to take action and work through circumstance, we might work to build a better default position, of less advice and more support.
We might find that we are left with a default, less judgmental or defensive.
Empathy allows school leaders to develop, enhance, and maintain relationships.  It greatly influences our school invitingness, especially for those who find school is the only place they can tell their stories, even if with a bit of venom or snarl. 
Empathy is an opportunity for school leaders to capitalize on the next teachable moment, showing others what sincerity and an unconditional positive regard can do for those in a time of need.


Gina Pleak and Ryan Donlan believe in the old Irish saying, “The best looking glass is the eyes of a friend.”  Are we as school leaders the eyes of a friend, when others approach us?  Do we make time for their stories, even when we don’t have it?  Do we strive for authentic regarding, rather than feigned transparency?  If you would like to discuss any of this further, please do not hesitate to reach-out and have a conversation at or at