Lead with Empathy

I co-facilitated a workshop last week for some faculty at another college. At the session, we discussed Stephen Brookfield’s book The Critically Reflective Teacher (2017) and the different lenses that we can use to examine our effectiveness. At the start of the session, we discussed how we needed to challenge our assumptions about teaching and learning and examine what we believe about our roles as teachers and our students’ roles as learning. My co-presenter and I shared a few stories where we confronted by how our assumptions were inaccurate.

In my story, I explained that when I first started teaching online I held the assumption that many students pursued online classes because they were easy. Even though I now know this assumption to be false, it absolutely colored how I interacted with students in my first online classes. I shared a story about the time I emailed an online student who had not fully participated during the first week of the class. My email was stern and communicated that she was not in compliance with the expectations of the course. If she wanted to pass the class, I wrote, she would get motivated and start doing the assigned work. My email was strongly worded because that’s what I believed was required when working with students who were looking for the easiest route.

Looking back, I have to admit that I’m a little embarrassed by the exchange that followed. The student emailed back to say that she was dealing with a serious family illness and hadn’t checked into the class because she was at the hospital. She was planning to ask for an extension for the first modules but instead decided to drop the class completely. My assumptions lead me to communicate with the student completely differently than what was needed in the situation. While I lead with a stern tone that communicated compliance, what she really needed was some empathy.

I explained this to the workshop attendees and discussed how my false assumptions of online students informed my communication. I also explained that I now “lead with empathy” in my communication with students. I now assume that students in my online and face-to-face classes are motivated to do high quality work. A few years ago, I came across a quote from Indra Nooyi, the chairperson and CEO of Pepsico, that really changed the assumptions I make about my students, and the other people with whom I interact.  Nooyi said:

“Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different. When you assume negative intent, you’re angry. If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed. Your emotional quotient goes up because you are no longer almost random in your response.”

It’s my job to tend to my students’ affective needs as much as their instructional ones and the assumptions I made are critical to that job. I hope readers don’t infer that I’ve lowered expectations for students or that we’re sitting around singing Kumbaya or anything. Instead, I find that “assuming positive intent” and “leading with empathy” gives me a starting point that gives me more options with students. If I determine that a student needs a stern email or a course correction, I can always adjust my communication and approach down the road.

10 thoughts on “Lead with Empathy

  1. Thanks for the reminder to lead with empathy! Our natural inclination is to think negatively when students are not performing well–yet how powerful our message can be if delivered with empathy. We just might gain trust and increase their desire to succeed!

  2. I will share my own: Many years ago I was deeply involved in our campus’s final orientation before the beginning of fall classes. Having just completed a 2-day program and having 1000+ students register for classes I was heading back to my office (now late on Friday). A student stopped me to ask for directions. She was supposed to come for orientation (which started the day before) but had just arrived on campus and was wondering who could help. A number of responses formed deep in my brain but I suppressed those and offered to show her to the advising office. I learned during the walk that she had to choose between coming to orientation or staying to say good-bye to her mother who was being deployed to Iraq. She made the right call and I stumbled into the right one as well. Thanks for the reminder, Ollie.

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