Have you ever encountered a difficult conversation, and asked yourself:
Every day, we speak with various stakeholders in the educational process who have different wants and needs. On any given day, we might need to have a difficult conversation with students, parents, or colleagues. All of these stakeholders might have different wants and needs. Sometimes, the wants and needs may contradict each other. It might be hard to meet the needs of all stakeholders in a particular situation. One could end up meeting the needs of a parent while restricting the needs of a student. One might appease an administrator, only to alienate a parent. It can be a difficult position to be in, trying to accommodate everyone in every situation. Ultimately, though, it is our responsibility as educators to navigate these wants and needs in order to improve outcomes for students.
While reading Jon Acuff’s latest book Do Over, I was struck by his description of empathy and I tried to figure out how it applies to the educational setting. Acuff described empathy as “understanding someone else’s needs and acting on them.” While this is a very simple definition, it applies to so many situations that we experience in schools every day. When considering other people’s needs, Jon Acuff encourages us to ask a simple question:
When considering this question, we must understand where someone is coming from, and decide how to move forward with this knowledge. Take for example, an interaction with a difficult student. A student who challenges a teacher may have had a bad experience the previous night at home, or gotten into a fight with their best friend, or simply not gotten enough sleep. The teacher must decide why the child is struggling, and decide how to move forward. Many times when this happens, a teacher will challenge the student publicly, creating a battle in which someone must win and someone must lose. In many cases, the battle ends with two losers. Rather than considering the student’s needs, the teacher considers his or her own needs first. It might be easier to ask:
Start by asking questions. How can I understand what this child is going through right now? What is really going on right now? Is there a way that I can make this situation better for my student? By asking any of these questions, the teacher can deescalate the situation with the child, and demonstrate empathy in the process. Questions will lead to answers, which will lead to a better understanding of the present situation that you are in. Having a better understanding of the situation will allow you to propose a better solution to the problem.
Understand who you are talking to. The parent who is confronting you about homework may be upset by something other than homework. Try to understand where the person is really coming from. Offer a sense that you do understand why the parent may be upset about homework. Try to remember the other concerns that the parent may have brought up in the past. Demonstrate an understanding of the person you are dealing with, and begin to empathize. Consider that not everyone has the same perspective as you. A parent may bring positives or negatives from their own school experience. Finding out about the parent’s perspective will help you to carefully meet the needs of the parent.
Make people feel bigger. Have you ever felt better in a situation where you made someone else feel small? It has probably never happened. Even if you felt bigger for a moment, you probably regretted your actions at a later point in time. Don’t make this mistake in your interactions with colleagues, parents, or students. The student who is causing all kinds of trouble this morning may be coming to school to experience the best part of his or her day. Take every opportunity to lift up that child rather than deflate them. Provide a chance for that student to show off to the class, or just give a reassuring pat on the back to say “I know this hasn’t been easy for you.”
So the next time that you encounter a difficult conversation or situation, rather than trying to win, ask yourself a simple question:
You will be happy you did.
Jon Acuff. Do Over: Rescue Monday, Reinvent Your Work, and Never Get Stuck. Published by Penguin Group. 2015.