Thank goodness my wife opened my eyes to the importance of empathy before I became a father and a school leader. To be honest, for the first half of my life, I was so driven to achieve the task at hand that I struggled to understand why some people just couldn’t show up, get to work and do what they had to do. By definition, “empathy” is accurately understanding what another person is feeling. If we understand the content of what the other person is saying, but cannot correctly identify the emotion that person is feeling, then we are not demonstrating empathy and we are not even aware of our deficiency.
When we were dating, one of the qualities my future wife demonstrated time and again was her uncanny ability to know how I felt, and how others felt, too. This quality was something very comforting and attractive to me. And it seemed new. As a child, I always knew that my parents loved me, but like most families in the 1950s and ‘60s, we didn’t talk about feelings very much. I also don’t remember much talk in school about such “touchy-feely” topics as caring for others, compassion or empathy. Instead, we were focused on performance and the school system I attended was famous for producing a high percentage of top graduates who would go on to great success in college and the business world.
I fit right in. As a student, I was task-oriented and driven to excel. Even as an athlete, I worked tirelessly as a gymnast, but it was not a team sport. So it was not until I grew professionally that I really learned to rely on others to make things happen. As an Air Force officer and later as a K-12 school administrator, my job as a leader was to inspire, to convey vision, to oversee strategy, communications, administration and the management of both people and systems. The higher up I climbed, the more I realized I could not do my job alone. The greater my responsibility, the more I relied on others.
And there’s the rub, the challenge of leadership—managing actual people, not machines.
Even though leadership starts with how we lead our individual lives, to succeed, we must understand how to maximize the time and talent of others. And in any group of people, at any given time—be they pilots, teachers or salespersons—some will be struggling with personal issues that run the gamut from financial to health and anything in between. Once, early in my career as a leader, I recall how one of my employees just couldn’t seem to function at work, having been traumatized by the loss of his spouse to cancer. I accommodated him as best I could for as long as I felt necessary, but eventually I terminated his employment.
Today, when I look back on that episode with the benefit of empathy, I see things differently. I now feel much more attuned to employees who may be struggling with mental and emotional stress and I encourage them to take time off to seek professional help that will allow them to return and continue contributing. I now wish I had done that in the earlier case. I realize now that I was too focused on that employee’s diminished performance and not enough on the defeated person, who needed compassion, patience and assistance to reclaim his potential.
For some, like my wife, the ability to read others seems to come naturally. For others, like me, it is something that we have to learn. But learn we must because if we cannot accurately identify another’s feelings, then we cannot manage well and our goals and expectations will never be met, much less exceeded. As administrators and principals, I’m not suggesting that we have to spend our free time socializing with our staff. But we do need to KNOW our people. Leaders who have a strong ability to empathize have a strong “Emotional Intelligence.” Just as people who have a low IQ are hampered by their inability to understand complexity, people with low EI scores are lacking in relationship skills. Emotions have names that can be accurately labeled: mad, glad, sad, frustrated, bitter, jealous, depressed, anxious, etc. A person demonstrates that they have empathy by accurately verbalizing another’s feelings. For example, if I said, “You seem upset,” I may only be somewhat empathetic. But if I more accurately say “You seem depressed,” then I have used a label which shows even more perceptiveness.
Empathy also engenders trust, which really is the “miracle ingredient” in any healthy workplace, but especially in schools. Naturally, people feel more trust in those who seem to fully “get” them, who care enough to actively listen. We do not exhibit empathy when we respond by:
- Saying nothing;
- Disregarding the other’s feelings, and saying whatever we want to say;
- Saying “I understand” before they’ve even finished explaining;
- Just telling the person what to do;
- Scolding the person for expressing a sincere emotion.
Of note, research shows that most bullies lack empathy, but of course, not everyone who lacks empathy is a bully. Fortunately, empathy can be learned and it is a skill that can be improved upon with practice. So, if you are like I once was, work at it. Practice listening to others and deciphering their emotions, mentally identifying what they seem to be displaying and then verbalizing it back to them. (e.g., “Bitterness is such a painful state of being, isn’t it?”).
In the end, as school leaders, we must learn how to empathize and to teach those whom we manage how to do so, as well. When I was a superintendent, I remember role-playing with one school principal whom some parents had criticized for appearing not to care about their concerns. As part of the exercise, I told the principal to employ the three “E’s”—Empathize, Echo and Eye Contact. I would assume the role of “Mrs. Parent” and voice my complaint. He would then have to look me in the eye and rephrase Mrs. Parent’s concerns. I would then raise the stakes and add emotion to my voice. For his part, the principal would be expected to match my intensity with an even greater level of attention and to verbalize back to me how he understood what a “painful and unnerving state” that I must be in.
Just stick with it and don’t give up. If I can learn to empathize, anyone can. The more school leaders learn this important skill, the greater their influence will be and the better their relationships will be with parents, students and their staff. As a result, the social climate and organizational culture of your school will improve, student achievement and attendance will rise, and the number of discipline problems will fall. All because you took the time to learn how to listen.
To learn about developing empathy in children, please attend the 20th National Forum on Character Education. One session sure to appeal is Raising Children of Character: 10 Things Parents Can Do, led by Tom Lickona
Drawing on stories from his own fathering experience, four decades of working with parents, and contemporary childrearing research, psychologist-educator Tom Lickona will describe and illustrate 10 tested principles of promoting character development through everyday family life. He’ll also describe 10 strategies for reaching out to parents to strengthen the school-home partnership. Handouts and recommended resources will be included.