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8 Tactics School Leaders can Employ to Strengthen Empathy

What’s at stake is simple: without strong empathy to see us through the future, engagement will slump and relationships will suffer.

Julia Reynen
June 30,  2020
Perspectives

Helping current students and future leaders navigate the pandemic with greater empathy is important because young minds will one day be the voice of government, business and community. When planning for the current reality of online and blended learning, it is important to continue to create unique learning opportunities for students to strengthen their emotional intelligence. Empathy is particularly crucial. According to Dr. Kristin Neff and the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, empathy promotes stronger, more compassionate people, systems and communities (Neff, 2020).

Due to the need for physical distancing, an even greater reliance on technology has emerged to facilitate learning. The dramatic increase in use of personal computers, video conferencing and virtual collaboration risks dehumanizing the learning experience and disaggregating  education systems; growing empathy among learners and school communities will mitigate these impacts. Moreover, physical distance requirements have underscored our innate desire for human interaction and our need to connect with individuals and groups. What’s at stake is simple: without strong empathy to see us through the future, engagement will slump and relationships will suffer.

Empathy can be strengthened intentionally over time

Being more in tune with yourself and aware of others is the first step toward strengthening empathy. According to a peer reviewed article published by Harvard Graduate School of Education (Jones et al., 2018), greater levels of emotional intelligence such as empathy lead to open, effective communication, more productive relationships,  diminished aggressive behaviors, and fewer emotional disorders.

A great starting point to help explore your own empathy lies in one short, introspective question: “Do I talk to myself the way I’d talk to a loved one?”

It is designed to do double duty as a thought experiment. On one hand, it forces you to confront the idea that you indeed talk to yourself and that discourse has a character. On the other hand, it presents you with a template for modelling that very self-discussion: the manner in which you talk to someone close to you.

Exploring empathy with university students at Ryerson University, Toronto.
Exploring empathy with university students at Ryerson University, Toronto.

In a recent session with the executive team of Enactus (Ryerson chapter) we presented young business leaders with this question.

“Do I talk to myself the way I’d talk to a loved one?” What followed was complete and utter silence—careful introspection. The long silence was pronounced and further underscored by thoughtful facial expressions acknowledging the complexity of the rather straightforward question. Heads bobbed as minds pondered the thought, eyes glanced up at the ceiling recalling recent moments of self-talk—I immediately understood we’d struck a chord.

Building empathy with future leaders

Through self reflection, participants were asked to independently identify repetitive negative self-talk, acknowledge it by writing it down and encouraged to be mindful of any patterns moving forward. This is where empathy and mindfulness make a powerful team: we can train our brain to identify repetitive thought cycles such as negative self-talk, become mindful of them and work to diminish their impact altogether.

We also examined key components to building empathy, including why it’s important to consider various perspectives, steering clear of judgement, tuning into one’s emotions and the emotions of others, as well as open communication and mindfulness. Together we examined what Brené Brown (2018) refers to as empathy misses such as expressing sympathy, shame or blame instead of striking an empathetic tone such as “I feel you, I get it – I’ve been there.”

The final step toward empathetic self-compassion is to begin rewiring the brain with positive mantras and positive self-talk.

After identifying and isolating negative self-talk such as second guessing one’s abilities, downplaying competence and aggrandizing challenges, they can systematically be replaced by their positive counterparts— such as, “This is really challenging, but you’ve got this”, “I am worthy of X” or “I’m feeling really scared about Y, but I know I am not in this alone.”

Enactus project manager Akshara George reflected, “This session was just the tool I needed to be more conscious about the feelings of my team. Furthermore, it also helped me to learn to navigate my own emotions and to be kind to myself.

Broader Implications for educators

Akshara’s comment crystallizes the importance of strengthening empathy not only at the post secondary level but at all levels of education. Drawing upon empathy as a key tool, leaders, educators and stakeholders alike can work toward bridging relational gaps. The end goal is to create inclusive learning systems and curriculum accessible to all.

Akshara George, Project Manager of Net+, Enactus Ryerson
Akshara George, Project Manager of Net+, Enactus Ryerson

Those who are truly ready to put people and their best interest at the core of operations will require adept emotional intelligence—including empathy—in order to achieve this goal. Here are eight tactics that can be used to strengthen empathy among communities of learners:

For school leaders

1. Protect time in your daily schedule to tend to the fears and feelings of stakeholders

2. Communicate openly with purpose and clarity—even if the information that needs to be shared is sensitive or upsetting to stakeholders

3. Be timely, consistent and remain open to feedback—establish and maintain open lines of communication amongst stakeholders. It’s important to acknowledge that you will make mistakes along the way

For all educators

Encourage individuals to explore and hone several attributes of empathy by:

4. Inviting learners to consider various perspectives before arriving to conclusions consciously

5. Monitoring judgement through close self examination of opinions of self and others. Judgements are decisions, conclusions, opinions or beliefs

6. Tuning into their emotions and the emotions of others by recognizing and naming emotions as they arise, consciously identifying how they’re thinking and feeling

7. Modeling open communication about your emotions e.g. talk about how you’re thinking and feeling

8. Incorporating mindfulness into daily routines. Mindfulness is the practice of deepening self awareness through noticing and accepting one’s thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations

As you work toward cultivating empathy in your professional practice and learning environment, remember that empathy is strengthened over time—it’s not a race to be won nor a finish line to cross. Begin with two or three of the tactics shared above. Develop your competence around them while building routines and rituals to cement their presence in your daily life. Over time you’ll strengthen capacity and incorporate more tactics into your practice.

Here are a few helpful resources to support your learning:


Brown, Brené. (2018). Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. Random House

Jones, S., Weissbourd, R., Bouffard, S., Kahn, J., & Ross Anderson, T. (2018) For Educators: How to Build Empathy and Strengthen Your School Community. Retrieved from https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/resources-for-educators/how-build-empathy-strengthen-school-community.

Neff, K. (2020). Self Compassion. Retrieved from https://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/.

Born in London Ontario, Canada Julia first moved abroad as an international student at the age of 18 and has since lived, worked and studied in six countries across three continents. An educator at heart, she is a millennial on a mission to positively disrupt leadership and workplace culture as we know it. As Founder & Principal Advisor of Culture Innovator, Julia supports leaders across all industries navigate rapid growth and change without compromising positive workplace culture.

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