Listening with Empathy

As a school, we recently concluded our professional learning journeys with an exhibition of what we have discovered about ourselves as learners, about learning and maybe something about what we were hoping to learn about.  

My learning journey was inspired by Jim Knight’s Better Conversations, which was introduced to our school by Michelle Harris back in October. The rationale for choosing Better Conversations as the starting point for my learning journey was the realisation that more than 80% of my day is spent in conversation.  Sometimes even more. If most of my day is spent engaged in this activity, I felt that I should make sure I can do it well or at least try to get better at it. I had also come to appreciate more deeply that conversations are about building relationships. Michelle shared a quote from Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations which captures this fundamental idea:

“Our work, our relationships, and our lives succeed or fail one conversation at a time.”

Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations

Knight’s book begins with six beliefs which I have now posted on my wall as a reminder.  

  • I see conversation partners as equals.
  • I want to hear what others have to say.
  • I believe people should have a lot of autonomy.
  • I don’t judge others.
  • Conversation should be back and forth.
  • Conversation should be life giving.

Knight then goes on to describe ten habits of conversation.  However, I got stuck on the first two which were demonstrating, and listening with, empathy.

In Knight’s brief screencast about empathy he discusses the importance of empathy at times of polarisation. However, I am beginning to see that it is a crucial habit for anyone who wants to build relationships, community and trust at any moment in time, and yes, perhaps more so now than ever.   

I am certainly not a master at practicing these habits and living these beliefs, but it has helped me to hear more clearly what the other person is saying. I’ll illustrate this through a couple of examples:

I had a conversation with a parent a few weeks ago who was frustrated with their perceived lack of communication from the school and they felt that they were not aware of what was going on.  During the conversation I worked hard to put myself in the parent’s shoes. I considered how I might feel in the situation, how I might feel shut out or that something is intentionally being hidden from me.  As I silenced my thoughts about their critique of the school, I came to the realisation that the issue was an opportunity to build a stronger partnership with parents. We are already using SeeSaw to build communication, but here was an opportunity to strengthen that crucial partnership with families.  His critique of the school, has become catalyst to develop more thoughtful and frequent ways to communicate and share the learning.

Another conversation, this time with a teacher, yielded similar concerns with communication and systems within the school.  Again, my approach to listen with empathy helped me to silence my thoughts, and embrace the teacher’s concerns and frustration. Instead of walking away feeling that the teacher had just vented their concerns with the school on me. I walked away determined to help the school and the teacher find better systems for communication. I could appreciate how devaluing a lack of communication can make you feel, and that if we want to ensure everyone feels valued and involved we need to improve our communication systems.

It is learning to listen to another perspective, without the noise of your own thoughts deafening the voice of the speaker.  

The nuances involved in listening with empathy reminded me of my first encounter with a self-assessment on the Learner Profile during my training as IB workshop leader.  We were asked to rate ourselves on the ten attributes at the beginning, and at the end of the workshop. At the start I rated myself as 7 on the open-minded scale, but at the end I’d rated myself as 4.  The workshop trainers were perplexed that I appeared to have move backwards. I explained that I had not regressed, but that I had come to deeper understanding of what open-mindedness is.

I think that is what listening with empathy is about.  It’s about developing a deeper understanding of others, valuing their voice, even if we disagree with their opinion.  It is learning to listen to another perspective, without the noise of your own thoughts deafening the voice of the speaker.  

As teachers, leaders, parents, spouses and just as human beings… if we learn to listen with more empathy we’ll be able build the relational trust that forms communities, while gaining deeper understandings and broader perspectives to help solve the complex problems we face each day.

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