What Empathetic School Leaders Do


 “…every trouble wants to draw the very best of you into the world.”

—Mark Nepo, from Seven Thousand Ways to Listen

When trouble happens sometimes we want to avoid conflict, look the other way, or pretend that there aren’t any problems until things go back to normal. This approach hurts more than it helps. The Dutch have a word for this way of being:  struisvogelpolitiek, literally, means “ostrich politics.” Acting like you don’t notice when something bad happens and continuing regardless as you normally would. Carrying on without addressing the real issue is a practice so prevalent that the Dutch pinned it down and named it. As school leaders we are called on to not only face trouble, but to transform difficult encounters into opportunities for stronger, more productive relationships.

Trust Your True Self

Building trustworthy relationships in life and work begins by cultivating inner trust and taking the perspective of another—the capacity to empathize with another. School leadership isn’t just about competency, expertise, strategic planning, and managing others. Before you can motivate or positively influence others, you must first connect to yourself, to your deepest values. According to work of the Center for Courage & Renewal and Parker J. Palmer, trust is based first on trusting your ‘true self’. The Center defines true self as that part of you that aligns with your deepest values. By receptively listening and aligning your actions to your true self, you act with greater congruence between your inner values and your outer actions, which translate into greater integrity, supporting relational trust.

Take the Perspective of Another

Research shows that leaders who are able to take the perspective of another demonstrate greater collaboration among co-workers. Perspective taking generates positive emotions in others and motivates trust, information sharing, cooperation, learning, and flexible responses, according to the study. Increasingly, school leaders are leading organizations during times of transition and this requires cultivating the capacity to hold ambiguity, complexity, tension, conflict, and unresolvedness, perhaps over sustained periods. The capacity to hold others’ points of view, to understand another’s perspective without championing one and making the other invalid, holding competing ends of a conflict is healthy, creative tension, and sets a foundation for outcomes where all sides win.

Be An Empathetic Leader

An important first step in developing relational trust in schools begins with becoming a more empathetic school leader, cultivating kindness, and acceptance of ourselves. Before we are able to build bonds within organizations and teams in stable times or times of transition and change, we must build bonds of support for ourselves. Before we can thoughtfully consider the feelings of others, we must thoughtfully recognize and understand our own feelings.

Empathy, according to psychologist and science journalist, Daniel Goleman, in his Harvard Business Review article, What Makes a Leader, is an essential leadership skill.  It does not mean becoming a doormat, passively acquiescing to others with whom you disagree, or trying to please everyone all the time. Instead, empathy is about thoughtfully and intelligently taking the perspective of others, recognizing their emotions, staying out of judgment, and communicating understanding of others. With empathy, school leaders are in a better position to consider not only others’ emotions, but their needs and values; strengthening true connection even across cultural, racial, gender, and ethnic differences.

TRY THESE MINDFUL LISTENING PRACTICES:

Mindfulness, the practice of nonjudgmental awareness of what is happening inside and outside one’s self, goes deeper than simply generating feelings of relaxation and calm, or developing a toolbox of mind techniques. It is an embodied practice that creates an inner balance that allows for greater emotional stability, with clarity to act and to respond with greater understanding. Mindfulness is both and inward (body sensations, thoughts, feelings) and an outward practice (awareness of interactions with others, one’s environment). A mindful school leader is an empathetic school leader. Here are some mindful listening and speaking practices that you can try:

  • In your next challenging conversation, stop, pause, and breathe
  • Before you say anything in response, focus on what is being said and connect with your body sensations and feelings
  • Give that person your full attention in the moment
  • Notice when your mind wanders and when your thinking turns to judgment or to formulating a response, or anything else, and return your attention to the speaker
  • Listen for what is said below the words, for the feeling tone, the person may be conveying
  • After the speaker has finished speaking, pause and check in with how you are feeling
  • Breathe and restore a sense of calm within you before you respond
  • Mirror back, with sincerity, what you’ve heard, saying something like: “What I heard was_________. Is that right?”
  • Validate the other’s perspective even if you don’t agree, with words like: “That makes sense to me” or “I can understand how you might feel.”
  • Listen deeper

These kinds of fully engaged, compassionate listening practices (especially in difficult conversations) are an act of courage. They work to strengthen trust and understanding, the building blocks for mindful school leadership and authentic presence.

Sources and Resources:

Center for Courage & Renewal. www.couragerenewal.org

Goleman, Daniel. 1998. What Makes a Leader, Harvard Business Review, Best of HBR 1998, pp.89-90.

Human 1.0. 2014. The Social Workplace Trust Study. https://www.iabc.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Social-Workplace-Trust-Study1.pdf

ILR School, Cornell University. 2009. Workplace Trust Research

Simple steps can build credibility. https://www.ilr.cornell.edu/news/workplace-trust-research

Interaction Associate. 2014. Building Workplace Trust: Trends and High Performance. http://interactionassociates.com/sites/default/files/research_items/Trust%20Report_2014_15IA_0.pdf

Lindahl, Kay. The Listening Center. www.sacredlistening.com