From Our Executive Director, Jacqueline Hicks (January 2017 Newsletter):
I say: Yes, and truly effective programs are using more than just empathy. Bullying behavior is increasingly problematic in our society, especially in our schools. Bullying behavior has been a part of most children’s experience since humanity began. I have been pondering memories of my own childhood, which include the hurt feelings I blamed on the harsh words or actions of others. I believed things like calling me names, teasing me, and making fun of me, were intended to exclude me and make me feel bad, which they did! Interestingly, I can’t remember my own acts of bullying, although I am certain that they occurred.
The power of empathy, as I see it, is being able to create a safe space for another person to fully explore and understand their own feelings and experiences. By remaining committed to the other person understanding him/herself, I may, but not necessarily, deeply understand their experience as well. In that commitment there is connection. If I find myself going to my own experiences or reacting with advice, sympathy, judgments, etc., that connection is broken and empathy is interrupted. Connection leads to compassion, and a relationship or link is formed between the two. For me to provide that kind of empathy, I also need congruence and unconditional positive regard. Congruence – the ability to responsibly, authentically and precisely identify my beliefs, thoughts, feelings and opinions – allows me the confidence that I know who I am and that I can always return to myself. I can therefore set aside my own ideas while listening to another. Unconditional positive regard is the ability to suspend judgments and truly appreciate, even treasure, the differences presented by others. This is where deep connection and respect for what otherwise might seem threatening and scary, develop into the field of openness and inclusiveness.
Much of what is called empathy these days I characterize as sympathy. Empathy is a term that has been used to cover compassion, kindness, sympathy, and a number of desirable character traits. However I think of empathy as my ability to be with another’s pain, suffering, joy, or exuberance, without taking it on, but deeply understanding it in a way that the other person feels the contact and communion. I refine it even more as: understanding another as they know they are, and at the same time not imposing myself or my perspectives in the conversation. It is easy to tip over into sympathy, which is defined as: the feeling that you care about, and are sorry about, someone else’s trouble, grief or misfortune.
How did I learn empathy?
I know I had some very good early training from my parents on accepting and respecting others, on caring about others, on thinking for myself, and on equal opportunity for all people. After that I gravitated to learning about individual and social dynamics. I wanted to understand myself and others – why we behave the way we do. It seems as though I have always been fascinated by relationships among people. In my observations, I saw how much pain was caused when communication broke down and people could not understand each other. I started seeing this as a teenager amongst my friends and their parents, which also led me to see my own breakdowns in communicating with my parents. That glimmer grew to a flame during college, when I discovered Carl Rogers and the Person Centered Approach. In reading his books, I thought he was speaking directly to me and I felt inspired and encouraged to relate more and more with congruence, empathy, and unconditional positive regard. The more I tried it, the better able I became, and I really enjoyed the results. I liked being with people, all people, and they seemed to like being with me. I made even more significant gains while learning from and working for Ernie Meadows at Camelot Project and Center for Studies of the Person. That is where I began to understand how congruence and unconditional positive regard enhance and complete empathy. Since then I have never stopped practicing and improving my Person Centered Approach, and sharing my progress with others. That was my purpose and my joy in founding the Cortez Hill Academy charter school. Education Transformations is an extension of that vision. To be continued….