Steve Barkley's Thoughts on Empathy and Leadership

Empathy and Leadership

Tanveer Naseer, writing in Empathy in Leadership – 10 Reasons Why It Matters, identifies empathy as agreeing or relating to the feelings another person has regarding a given situation or individual. Empathy means being able to understand the needs of others. You’re aware of their feelings and how it impacts their perception. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with how they see things; rather, that you’re willing and able to appreciate what the other person is going through.

“By understanding and providing employees with what they need to succeed, leaders can build a sense of trust, thereby strengthening the relationships they have with their employees and consequently, the relationships employees have with one another, leading to greater collaboration and improved productivity.”

In Teaching Strategies: The Importance of Empathy, Jordan Catapano defines empathy as “the power to understand perspectives other than your own.” Empathy is foundational for building bridges between individuals, understanding each other’s’ complex emotions, gaining a diverse perspective, and leveraging relationships for collaboration and progress.

Catapano reminds us that empathy is a skill and like all skills, it can be thoroughly developed … or ignored.

You could argue that alongside our responsibility to equip our students with the academic skills to ace tests, utilize technology, and comprehend curriculum, we likewise need to consider how we can formulate our teaching strategies to undergird their character to become the most well-rounded and complete individuals as they progress through their educational career. “

The PLS3rdLearning graduate class, Building Communication and Teamwork in the Classroom states that:

For the teacher/leader in the classroom, empathy boils down to being considerate and respectful of those we lead. The honest desire to understand stems from respect for the worth of the student as a human being. Empathy is an indication of the importance each of us gives to our students. Empathy creates bonds and develops trust. When students feel bonded, they are much more likely to cooperate. Being anything but “honest in the process” will come off as manipulative and will tear down trust levels.

 Empathy is crucial for the leader’s primary task of “getting on the same wavelength” with his or her students. Being attuned to (in harmony with) how others feel in the moment, allows leaders to say and do what is appropriate—whether to calm fears, assuage anger, or join in good spirits. This also lets a leader sense the shared values and priorities that can guide the group. By the same token, a leader who lacks empathy will unwittingly be off-key, and so speak and act in ways that set off negative reactions. Empathy—which includes listening and taking other people’s perspective—allows leaders to tune into the emotional channels between people ‘that build common ground.’”

Instructional coaches and school leaders often find that when teachers are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or worried, their responses can sound challenging, and the coach or leader can feel personally attacked. Feeling attacked generally creates one of two responses:

#1 An attempt to solve the issue that is causing the teacher the negative feeling


#2 A defensive response


Teacher: “The district has given us a new curriculum which causes a great increase in planning time on our part and now we have to have to attend these cross- grade level meetings taking more of our time.”

Coach #1 “I’ll see if I can shorten the meeting.” (solve problem)

Coach #2 “The curriculum office is requiring every school to hold these meetings. It’s not my decision” (defensive)

Recognizing the emotion in the teacher’s statement would suggest empathy as a better response. An Empathy Statement is stated using positive, respectful voice intonation and body language and acknowledging the teacher’s feelings. It involves two steps:

First, empathize with the person’s feelings.

Second, point out the person’s past or future success and/or focus the person in an alternative direction.

Beginnings for Empathy Statements

Step 1: (Includes a descriptive emotional word such as upset, worried, stressed, etc.)

“You seem to be . . . “

“It sounds like you feel. . . “

“You are. . . “

“I sense that you are. . . “

“You must be very. . . “

“You have a right to be . . . “

Step 2:

“I’ve seen you. . . in the past.”

“We can work together to . . . “

“Perhaps. . . would work.”

“What if you. . . “

“In the future. . . “

“From now on…”

“Working together, we can. . .” .

“Let’s explore some ways you might. . . “

Looking at the earlier teacher comment, here are possible empathy statement responses.

Teacher: “The district has given us a new curriculum which causes a great increase in planning time on our part and now we have to have to attend these cross- grade level meetings taking more of our time.”

Coach: “A new curriculum does put planning time demands your already stressed schedule. I am hopeful that our cross- grade level planning leads to greater student success which will reward us all”. (future success)


Coach: “It is a harried time for many teachers. What have you seen in the new curriculum that will be most helpful to your students?” (alternative direction)

I find that when the coach/facilitator/leader allows the teacher to own the feeling and the problem, it is much easier to listen and empathize. When you take ownership of the problem and feeling, empathy is replaced by problem solving or defensiveness.

Building Communication and Teamwork in the Classroom provides educators with strategies to increase their success in leadership, communication and listening, positive thinking, student support, and team building.

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