Empathy to the Complaining - Steve Barkley

Empathy to the Complaining

This week I had a couple of phone calls and requests for “How do I respond when…” that lead me to put in this reminder for coaches, principals, and facilitators to use empathy statements.

Often when teachers are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or worried, their responses sound challenging and the coach or leader feels 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 from the listener


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 that every school to hold these meetings. It’s not my decision” (defensive)

Here is some information on creating Empathy Statements, taken from Performance Learning System’s coaching training:

Empathy Statement
The Empathy Statement is one we might choose when dealing with a situation arising from a person’s feelings or emotions. When using the Empathy Statement, we recognize that a person’s feelings are acceptable, no matter what they are. The Empathy Statement is stated using positive, respectful voice intonation and body language.

When using an Empathy Statement in a coaching situation, we acknowledge the coachee’s feelings. Compared with a Confirmatory Paraphrase, which also may be used to acknowledge feelings, an Empathy Statement has an added quality of conveying personal empathy.

Confirmatory Paraphrase: “You’re angry.”
Empathy Statement: “You have a right to be angry and upset by this situation. I have seen you handle this type of thing successfully in the past.”

Confirmatory Paraphrase: “You’re frustrated.”
Empathy Statement:”You must be really frustrated with this student’s response. We can work together to come up with a way to work with her successfully.”

Confirmatory Paraphrase: “You are overwhelmed.”
Empathy Statement: “Trying to meet the needs of all your students is overwhelming at times. Perhaps Mario and Amy could work with a peer tutor.”

The purpose of the Confirmatory Paraphrase is to clarify the other person’s agenda. The Empathy Statement, on the other hand, conveys that you understand and goes one step further.

The Empathy Statement involves two steps:

First, empathize with the person’s feelings.
Second, point out the person’s past or future success and/or lead the person in an alternative direction.

In the examples of Empathy Statements above, the first one is an example of empathizing and then pointing to past success. The second empathizes and then points to future success. The third empathizes and then leads in an alternative direction.

Beginnings for Empathy Statements

Step 1:
“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 go over some ways you might. . . “

© 2005, 2006, 2007 Performance Learning Systems, Inc. ®All rights reserved.

Let’s look at the earlier teacher comment with an empathy statement 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: “A new curriculum does put planning and time demands on an already stressed teacher’ 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 defense.

Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 Responses to “ Empathy to the Complaining ”

  1. Jen Says:

    Thank you for this post! I find it to be something I can use…and have reflected on the fact that I have given many confirming statements as opposed to empathy statements.

  2. Star-Tariray Says:

    I indeed love your post… you raised a very good point about emphaty and all… very helpful…

Leave a Reply

Blog: Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud

Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Listen to Steve Barkley’s Latest Podcast

Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Academy for Educators

Become an expert in instructional coaching, blended and online learning strategies, engaging 21st Century learners, and more with online PD from PLS 3rd Learning.
Learn more

Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email