by Laurie Kimbrel
The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner
Another essential component of leadership for women is empathy or the deliberate act of reflecting on the situation or thoughts of another. Some theorize that women are more naturally empathetic than men, although relying on stereotypes never accurately reflects reality. In an organization with a robust strategic plan that calls for continuous improvement, we need to recognize and understand that different groups of stakeholders will experience change differently. We should take time to listen and understand these experiences and work to understand how it feels from their perspective.
One strategy for gaining empathy for our students is to shadow a typical student in your school for a day. We see their experience from the outside, but what does it really feel like to sit still all day? How difficult is it to understand the differing expectations and systems of different teachers? What does it feel like to wait in line in the lunchroom and to eat your food in 10-15 minutes? As you shadow one student, take the time to ask other students a set of specific questions:
- What is the learning outcome or goal of this class today?
- Where are you in terms of that learning goal?
- What are your next steps to make progress on that goal?
These are questions that I ask when I’m in classrooms and I’m continuously surprised that the learning goal is not always clear to students. This certainly gives me empathy for the difficulty of learning in a system where goals are not explicit.
Empathy requires information and time to listen. Another good strategy to gain information about a particular stakeholder group’s perspective is to set up advisory councils. As a superintendent, I had parent, student and staff advisory councils that met four to five times per year. The first meeting of the year was always without a specific agenda so that I could gather general information about how they experience school and our system. The meeting was organized in terms of three general questions:
- What is going well?
- What could be going better?
- What questions or issues would you like to see addressed at our future meetings.
The final question always brought great ideas for future agenda items.
It can be difficult to set up student advisory councils at the district level. Students identify with a school rather than a school district. As a superintendent, I asked principals to set up school based student advisory councils that I attended. These councils included a wide variety of students from every social group rather than relying on a leadership class or student council. The idea was to get many perspectives rather than the student voice most often heard. As a superintendent, participating in student advisory councils allowed me to understand trends and patterns of thought across the district as well as issues specific to one particular school. I then shared then shared these trends and patterns with the district senior leadership team as well as the school board.
Although there are many different strategies to develop a pattern of deliberate empathy, the most important strategy is to be reflective and thoughtful of how others feel about their schools and the district. Empathy takes time but it may be the best time a leader spends and can drive the pace of innovation and change. Modeling empathy can also move others toward more empathy for our positions as leaders as well. What other strategies do you have to increase empathy within your organization? I would love to hear from others on this topic.