Sunday, September 14, 2014

Radical Empathy

Radical Empathy

“I am standing by the shore of a swiftly flowing river and hear the cry of a drowning man. I jump into the cold waters. I fight against the strong current and force my way to the struggling man. I hold on hard and gradually pull him to shore. I lay him out on the bank and revive him with artificial respiration. Just when he begins to breathe, I hear another cry for help. I jump into the cold waters. I fight against the strong current, and swim forcefully to the struggling woman. I grab hold and gradually pull her to shore. I lift her out onto the bank beside the man and work to revive her with artificial respiration. Just when she begins to breathe, I hear another cry for help. I jump into the cold waters. Fighting again against the strong current, I force my way to the struggling man. I am getting tired, so with great effort I eventually pull him to shore. I lay him out on the bank and try to revive him with artificial respiration. Just when he begins to breathe, I hear another cry for help. Near exhaustion, it occurs to me that I'm so busy jumping in, pulling them to shore, applying artificial respiration that I have no time to see who is upstream pushing them all in....” (Adapted from a story told by Irving Zola as cited in McKinlay, John B. "A case for refocusing upstream: The political economy of illness." In Conrad and Kern, 2nd edition, 1986, The Sociology of Health and Illness: Critical Perspectives. pp. 484-498.) 

My friend is a family therapist. She is intrigued by the ways all the people in a big family work together, given the innumerable conflicts in such a group. She encourages as many family members as possible to come to sessions, so she can see them in action. The more family members in the room, the more likely that they will behave in their typical fashions.

She said to me, “Each one of them wants to get through the day and safely back to bed for the night. They don’t always help themselves by how they behave, but in the end, everyone wants homeostasis, everyone wants the conflicts to end. On their own terms, they just want peace. They want to make it back to bed safely.” In that moment she experienced radical empathy, the capacity to connect with the most basic universal feelings of being a human.

Schools provide us with the opportunity every day to experience radical empathy. We often speak of our schools as “one big family”—sometimes we mean that in the good way, and sometimes in the dysfunctional way. We are interdependent in a school building, and the quality of our days is greatly influenced by the quality of our relationships. Everyone who walks into the school building in the morning wants to emerge safe, and hopefully wiser, at the end of the day.

There are many hurdles to safely clear from the morning until the school doors close behind us in the afternoon. In most cases there are just too many people crowded into the hallways, classrooms, and cafeterias. The pace is unnatural. The work load is consistently over the limit of what is reasonable. The rewards are not consistently robust, and often they lie at a distant horizon. The critical judgments of peers, authorities, and society are omnipresent. It is no wonder we often push open that school house door with unease.

Students, teachers, staff, administrators, parents--we really are all in it together, just like the family members squeezing into the chairs in my friend’s family therapy sessions. I want us to recognize the shared frustrations, hopes and feelings of every person in the school. I want us to practice radical empathy.

I use the term “radical” with great care. I am not talking about an enervating feeling sorry for everyone (although I prefer that any day to anger or indifference). I am not talking about saying, “I hear you, but…” because that word “but” negates everything that came before it. “…but…” pushes away the depth of empathy that can lead to change, which can lead to new affiliations. Radical empathy means, “I hear you, and…” It means our fates are tied to one another, and we can join hands in taking action.

Radical empathy asks that you strive to see the best, and the potential best, in each person in the school building, as you would wish they would see that in you. It is a belief that each of us could do better if the conditions allowed for it.  Radical empathy is a rejection of the Iron Age mythology that there are inherently evil and bad people.

Having been a student, teacher, parent, and administrator, I experienced moments when I was sure I had it worst of all—none of the others could understand how tough it was for my peers and me. To stoke the fires of radical empathy, here’s a reminder of how hard it can be in each of these roles:

Students: Does anyone have it worse than the kids? They have no power. They have no organization. They have little to no say in how their environment is shaped. They are subjected to continual judgment and evaluation, and more and more subjected to compassionless high stakes testing. When the system makes no sense to them they can resist, complain, drop-out, or comply—but not effect change. The kids long for the teachers who understand them and who care for them deeply, and if your teacher this year isn’t a good match, you have to do all the compromising.

Teachers: Does anyone have it worse than the teachers? We are called “professionals” and then treated as if we can’t be trusted with kids, with curriculum, with evaluations. After years of hard work we are paid significantly less than a college graduate heading into business. There is never enough prep time, and even less time to plan with peers. The breadth and depth of our work is astounding: we teach every social skill, voluminous academic skills, and future employment skills, with groups of students whose ranges of need and ability make it impossible to bring each to mastery. Then we are blamed.

Parent: Does anyone have it worse than parents? Each day we drop off the most precious part of us, our children, and can only hope they are treated well—when we remember that we weren’t always treated well when we were students. We have no say over school schedules, rules, or evaluations. When we make inquiries or suggestions, we are often treated as if we are getting in the way. When we are really concerned about something important, we are often viewed as hostile. When our child is struggling, “the home” is seen as the problem. When our child suffers, we will still and always be the parent, the one who has to somehow make it work, year after year after year.

Administrators: Does anyone have it worse than administrators? Everyone knows it is an impossible job, caught between the school department, federal and state regulations, teachers’ unions, and parent associations. Our work is more and more judged by standardized tests, which barely reflect the depth and breadth of our daily tasks. We work longer hours than anyone, have shorter vacations (wasn’t that the big perk of being an educator?), and always have more people to get back to than is humanly possible. We have to mentor, support, and then, without compassion, evaluate every educator in the building, putting all our relationships at risk—were there even the time to do those evaluations well.

No one has it easy, and everyone wants it to work. Radical empathy asks that we see ourselves, or parts of ourselves, in every student, teacher, parent, and administrator. No one is rejected. Radical empathy pushes us to cross the boundaries between our roles and divisions, and say, “Me too.” More than that, radical empathy recognizes that we may not have the power in this moment to change the conditions of schools, and we can help each other. We must help each other. Helping each other across roles and divisions sets up the affiliations that lead to political and economic changes. Schools can be far far better organizations for learning and teaching. Practicing radical empathy gives us the taste of that reality, by asking us to see the best possible person in every individual.

Here are some thoughts about how to practice radical empathy:

Recognize the power you do have, especially the power over others— Radical empathy means that you treat each person, in each interaction, with exquisite respect. I worked in a school where the principal was buddy-buddy one day and then dictatorial the next. His empathy was inconsistent at best, and few of us trusted him. Teachers similarly wield their authority over students. Radical empathy demands that you use your power to support each person, and that you say, “This is what I can and can’t do to make a difference.”

Share power and authority when you can— At the beginning of each school year, I gave a message to my students in the classroom when I was a teacher, and a similar one to the teachers at a staff meeting when I was an administrator: “I sometimes will take on a job because I think I can do it efficiently, but it is a job that I should have left for you, because it was really yours to do. There will be other times when I hand off a job to you and you’ll be thinking, ‘That’s not mine. Jeffrey has the time and the power to do that task.’ I will do my best to get those decisions right.” Everyone below you in the hierarchy believes you have vast powers to do almost anything you want, but you don’t. Radical empathy recognizes that we all want the school to function well, and that the traditional lines of authority and control often impede our efforts. Be transparent about what has to get done. Be inclusive up and down the hierarchy in building strategies.

Listen—And listen for shared interests; i.e. “I want that too.” Again, this is the critical difference between, “I hear you, but…” versus “I hear you, and…” When you practice radical empathy you listen for the strains of shared hope and frustration, and seek a shared next step.

Identify short and long term needs—When a student, teacher, or parent, is complaining, or shutting down, in that moment each of them has lost access to other strategies. They want to make it work somehow--when you practice radical empathy you remember that everyone is trying to get through the day. You are not going to change someone’s entire life. You can offer support to get through the moment, and be honest about the long-term changes that you also wish for, long-term changes that are not now in anyone’s ability to create. And sharing your hope for a better future for everyone is one way we support each other along the lengthy road to that better future.

And leads to action—Radical empathy allows us to remember what it felt like when we were the ones who were angry or helpless, when we experienced our school as chaotic, irrational, under-resourced, and at times brutal. After thoroughly listening, offer to brainstorm possible next steps, everything from sitting together quietly to walking down the hall to convening a meeting. What can you offer to someone with the power you have? What would you have wanted someone to do for you? 


  1. It feels like students are required to pole vault over a bar that is higher than the pole that they are given to reach it. The teachers are expected to teach them how to get over the bar with the pole that is too small, and now with the new evaluation system firmly in place the administrators who try to make this work will be held accountable for the students and teachers failed attempts. I have learned in public schools that everyone is expected to do everything without the necessary resources or support. You are right Jeffrey - we can accept this as fact - yet remain caring, remain human, and remain kind.