“The importance of empathy” is the title of the speech that never was.
I had sought to give this speech at my graduation ceremony (I just got my Masters in Counseling), but alas, I wasn’t selected. My counseling program is under UNCG’s School of Education, so the speech was written for an audience of educators. Of course, I made some minor adjustments given the shift in context for my blog, but the heart of the message and the spirit in which it was constructed are still the same. Special acknowledgments for all those who work in education!
Anyway, here’s the one insight I wanted to leave on that graduation day that I will leave here in its slightly revised form: the importance of empathy.
There are several counseling theories that highlight the importance of empathy. Carl Rogers’ Person-Centered Therapy argues that empathy is a core condition for change in a client. Similarly, Jean Miller’s Relational-Cultural Therapy emphasizes how empathy builds and maintains mutually beneficial, growth-fostering relationships where everyone feels that they matter. Even neurologically, we’ve seen how mirror neurons (brain cells related to observing others’ actions) incite us to empathize. In simpler terms, I see you rejoicing and I feel the same joy; you see me crying and you feel that same sadness. Empathy is in our books and in our bodies.
It’s also in our stories. We are here today because of empathy. Everyone can think of one meaningful educator who made a world of difference for you and your ability to learn, who had a huge impact on your educational achievement. But not just that, this person understood you, was present with you and supportive of you, accepted you for who you were and challenged you to be better. Perhaps you wouldn’t be here today without this person. I submit to you that this person was likely able to empathize with you.
Empathy is also in our futures. Our capacity to empathize will be crucial as we seek to create transformative learning opportunities for our students. Learning often occurs within the context of meaningful relationships, and within that context, substantial connections can form between us educators and our students. These connections are enhanced by our ability to demonstrate to others that we understand how they feel, that we are with them and for them genuinely, that their failure is our failure and their success is our success.
This is especially important when students encounter hardship. They will encounter rejection, shame, failure, disappointment, and other painful things. We’ve all encountered this pain, and it hurts. However, this pain can be overcome with empathy because it reminds us that we are not alone in our hardships. With empathy, we replace students’ fear with hope and exchange their apathy with motivation to achieve.
I challenge and encourage you to incorporate empathy in all you do. However you aspire to serve as an educator, consider how you can connect more deeply and authentically with those around you. Rather than withdraw, empathize with people and seek to understand them; listen to their stories and validate their feelings. Instead of offering pity, empathize by offering care and helping others in their time of need. In place of criticism and judgment, empathize and shine light in someone’s darkness by reminding them that they are not alone, that you are with them, just like someone has done for you.
Fight the common urge to disconnect and seek to connect with empathy. I cannot help but think that this will not only increase our students’ chances for success but enrich our lives in ways that are immeasurably worthwhile.
Love Love Love,