Effective leaders listen with empathy

Dennis Sparks

When we move out of ourselves and into the other person’s experience, seeing the world with that person, as if we were that person, we are practicing empathy. —Arthur Ciaramicoli & Katherine Ketcham

Civility is the bedrock of productive and supportive relationships within schools.

An essential building block of  civility is leaders’ ability to demonstrate empathy for the experience and perspective of others within the school community.

“Being aware of others is where civility begins,” P. M. Forni writes in The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude. “To be fully aware of them, we must weave empathy into the fabric of our connection. . . . The empathy of strangers is good for us not just because it makes us feel better about ourselves and about life, but also because it encourages us to be better persons. Empathy is wonderfully contagious.”

In my experience, leaders’ lack of empathy is a leading cause of interpersonal problems in the workplace, which, in turn, undermines a school community’s ability to achieve it’s most important goals.

Empathic leaders:

fully and deeply hear what others say, 

• convey both verbally and nonverbally that they understand that person’s perspective and experience, and 

• communicate respect for the individual who is speaking.

Through their words and demeanor empathic leaders communicate to others the value of both the message and the messenger

Too often leaders inadvertently communicate disrespect by cutting off speakers because they assume they know what the speakers will say, “hijacking” speakers’ stories to focus on things the listener regards as more worthy of discussion, or demonstrating inattention and disinterest by glancing at their computer screen or smart phones.

On the other hand, leaders who listen with empathy demonstrate respect for what the speaker is saying through such simple but often neglected practices as making eye contact, tolerating periods of silence during which speakers can reflect on their own words, and demonstrating through their demeanor an appreciation of speakers’ feelings.

“[T]he quality of our listening is as good a measure of our humanity as any. . .,” P. M. Forni notes. “[W]hen we find the strength to engage in considerate listening we are in fact expressing ourselves. At our best.”

Leaders with high levels of emotional intelligence listen attentively to deeply understand the experiences and perspectives of others and demonstrate that understanding through their words and demeanor. It is the bedrock of civility and meaningful collegiality within the school community.

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