By Anita Devi with guest blogger Ginny Bootman
Empathy is a desirable value, attribute, and skill. Yes, it is all three, but what does empathy really mean? In this blog, writing alongside Ginny, we unravel the essence of empathy – what it is, why we need it, how to embrace our empathetic nature and what can block us being empathetic.
Ginny’s strapline is “Follow the Empathy Road”. She advocates, empathy is a choice. I agree, but permit me to take it a step further:
Imagine you are standing at a point in the road, where the path divides. One road is called ‘With Others Highway’ and the alternative is named ‘On My Own Road’. Which do you choose? I know my choice. As the African proverbs says, “if you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far, go together’. So, are you a sprinter or marathon runner? The point of these metaphors is to conjure up a picture in your mind – empathy is fundamentally about choosing “togetherness”. That is the root of it, as well as it’s sustenance. Togetherness in the good times and the tough and rough. Empathy is not just about feeling another’s pain. It is also about sharing their joy! Can you celebrate the successes of others? For me, that is the beauty of empathy – it is all about ‘doing life together’.
So, does empathy matter? This is what Ginny says,
“Empathy matters more than ever in our lives right now. We are living in a world of disconnection brought about by many factors including a pandemic that has physically and emotionally separated us, for over a year. The age of technology can be used for good, but it is also driving us to seeing each other masked on screens or communicating solely via devices and apps. This can even be with individuals who live in the same household! A friend of mine often communicates with her children via Alexa from one room to another. If we are in the same room, faces are often obscured by screens and emotions are lost through the back of a phone.”
Why have empathy in our lives?
In relation to empathy, Ginny talks about the cycle of ECTA. For me, this is the cycle of being who you are meant to be and doing what you were destined to do. Empathy liberates the potential.
“One barrier” Ginny continues, “to showing empathy is that individuals can see it as having to open themselves up and show vulnerability. This vulnerability is actually a sign of strength.” I agree, it is in our weakness, togetherness becomes a strength.
‘Individuals who empathize with others also help themselves: attracting friends more easily, experiencing greater happiness and suffering less depression than their less empathetic peers.’ – Jamil Jakil ‘The War of Kindness’ (2019)
How to embrace our empathetic nature?
There are three core intentional processes of empathy:
The very first company I started (post university), we had a motto “To know, to care, to grow”. If we knew our client and partners, the quality of our service would be rooted in ‘care’. In effect our actions would lead to growth for us and our clients. It is hardly surprising that all our projects were community-based and led to community cohesion in a specific geographical area.
Using our senses to see, hear and feel is vital. The day-to-day noise of life can cloud this out. What if we took a moment to ‘Pause for a cause’? During the recent national week of mourning, we made an intentional decision at #TeamADL to go radio silent on social media. We had several projects pending, but we also knew this was moment for the nation to grieve and heal. We would play our part. Throughout the week, we watched, we listened, and we did life from a different perspective. It was empowering, to say the least. Head engagement is about wisdom. It’s pulling together information from our senses and forming an understanding based on ‘what is’ not ‘what we think is’. I would add at this point, knowing and accepting does not always mean agreement. I can see what drug dealers or human traffickers do; I can hear their rationale. I can know their background and accept their choices, but it does not mean I agree. Admittedly these are extreme examples. However, in the day to day, I can empathise without agreeing. It goes back to Ginny’s ECTA cycle. In hearing the voice of others, I have to remain authentic to myself too!
There are many more questions we could ask here. For example:
- Is empathy an inborn trait or learnt skill?
- Can empathy be taught or learnt?
- What makes some people better at ‘expressing’ empathy than others?
You may have questions of your own. Leaning on the work of Jakil (2019), Ginny talks about modelling and mirroring. The mirror neurons in our brain have the capacity to mimic emotions we see around us.
A personal story from Ginny: on one occasion, I came into class feeling under the weather. One pupil read my body language and said to my teaching assistant. ‘I really think we need to get Mrs Bootman a cup of tea, she seems a bit down.’ This comment of heightened awareness from a child who two years prior showed no personal empathy to anyone was a light-bulb moment. I like to think the empathy he received from me; the consistent modelling, he internalised and was able to mirror it back to me. It was a real defining moment for me and showed how modelling and mirroring is critical to widening the empathy circle. That is how the connection in ECTA starts. This connection is discovered through personal connection of commonality.
I agree with Ginny. But I would also assert ‘commonality of connection’ is not always about liking the same thing. Sometimes it is. Other times, it is about the process of finding a bigger purpose during a time of conflict or crisis. I have taught children, who have not always got on with me to start with. Miss Devi is quirky! We accept the difference and over time we unite over something that is bigger than the issues that divide us. If empathy was just about common likes to form connection, then we would end up being fulltime people pleasers, with affiliation bias and completely disoriented by social media! A more concrete example: the red and blue street gangs in New York. There are ample case studies in research to show how conflicting gangs came together through a common cause. As South Africa emerged out of the chains of apartheid, it was a rugby game that brought connection. Winning mattered to all, regardless of colour. So, empathy is not about agreeing, but accepting togetherness, in difference. I believe, each one of us was created uniquely for a purpose. This framework gives me a basis to accept who I am, who others are and the diversity between us is then empowering for a greater good.
Both Ginny and I agree, this works equally well with colleagues and in teams. How can we expect staff to empathise with learners, if they are not on the receiving end of empathy from leaders? Team empathy is the cornerstone of effective leadership. Maybe that’s a blog for another time !?!
Before we bring this dialogue to a close, we wanted to take a few minutes to explore the barriers to empathy:
Ginny: Interestingly Jakil (2019) also states ‘We have more reasons to avoid empathy than ever.’ We can bring this back to our need to survive and protect our family. Individuals may revert to this idea of protecting themselves before protecting others. In the current world we live in this is perhaps more pertinent than ever. He also states that ‘when people feel like someone else’s pain will overwhelm them, the steer clear.’ I have seen this happen. It is as if to say, if I help someone I will be saddled with their problems.
Anita: Empathy is an on-going choice. Back to my dividing paths at the beginning of this blog. There is an initial choice: on my own vs togetherness. But here is the thing about togetherness – you have to keep choosing it! Difficult times or moments of joy – they are SO much better, when we do it together. However, for some – difficult times, they go into tortoise mode. Back into a shell believing we can only show ourselves when we are perfect or strong. Moments of joy for another, takes a big heart and choosing not to compare or feel jealous. For me, empathy is daily choice when I walk up in the morning and a reflection at night – how well did I do and what can I learn from my mistakes today? Sleep, for me is a pitstop on the ‘With Others Highway’.
In closing, both Ginny and I extend a hand of friendship and togetherness to you all. We are here in the tough times and in moments of joy! Speaking of joy, do look at the #TeamADL SEND Leaders’ Appreciation Day 2021 and celebrate someone you know! Nominations close on 1st June 2021.
About Ginny Bootman
Ginny is a SENCO of 2 Primary Schools in Northamptonshire. She has been teaching longer than she hasn’t and has been class teacher as well as a Head Teacher during this time. She loves to talk about ways to promote empathy in the school community. You can find her on Twitter @sencogirl and at www.ginnybootman.com
About Anita Devi
As a former SENCO, Senior Leader, School Improvement Advisor, local authority SEND Advisory Teacher and Healthwatch Trustee, Anita Devi carries a wealth of experience in developing Leaders of Learning. Her own teaching career spans early years to post grad in the UK and overseas and Anita lives her why through her belief in the joy of learning and the power of purpose. In 2017, Anita was awarded the prestigious international Influential Educational Leaders Award for her SEND Leadership Pipeline strategy developing professionals from initial teacher training to advanced and experienced SENCOs. Currently a PT PhD student, ChangeMaker Education Consultant & Founding CEO of #TeamADL (a not-for-profit) In 2019, the team were selected as finalists for The Disability Awards alongside some top multinational companies. More recently, working with NASBTT, Anita has written the first SEND book for Early Career Teachers. #TeamADL have also launched in 2020 SEND Leaders Connect Advanced and SEND Leaders’ Appreciation Day.
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