Empathy in Higher Education
Not Just for Counselors Anymore
By Kathryn Miller

From the September 2002 AAHEBulletin.com

Empathy is coming out of the closet - the campus counseling center closet, that is. Empathy is a valuable tool for classroom management and facilitating relationships between faculty members and administrators.

Professors who use empathy skillfully are able to avoid power struggles with students and calm angry or agitated students while modeling effective communication. Faculty and administrators can use empathy to promote productive exchanges.

Acknowledging Another Person's Experience

Empathy is the ability to grasp the subjective experience of another person and the ability to communicate that understanding. Empathy is an intellectual ability, not an affective one. In other words, it is accurately identifying the feelings and thoughts of another person, not feeling or thinking as he or she does.

You demonstrate empathy when you communicate an understanding of the internal experience of another person in a given situation, not what your internal experience would be in the same situation. Counselors refer to the latter as identification, and it can interfere with truly hearing the other person. Empathic communication is arguably the most important skill used by counselors, and it also serves the purposes of professors and college administrators, and anyone else who desires satisfying communication with other people.

Producing Empathic Communication

Three factors are necessary for professors and administrators to add empathy to their communication toolboxes. The first requirement is getting past the idea that empathic communication is touchy-feely business that demonstrates weakness. In fact, empathic communication is disarmingly powerful. When an angry student lashes out and a professor or administrator is able to accurately identify the student's internal experience, the anger, fueled by the frustration of not being understood, is diffused. Being understood is therapeutic in any setting.

A second requirement for using empathic communication is the ability to separate our own experience from those of others, even when the other person is being irrational or unpleasant. For example, a professor's subjective experience might be annoyance that a student is rudely expressing dissatisfaction with his grade on a paper. The professor's perception and feelings are valid. The professor could still acknowledge the student's subjective experience by saying, "It is disappointing to have expectations of a certain grade that are not met."

Accurately identifying the student's experience does not imply that the student's behavior is appropriate. In fact, it is a good starting place for the correction. In the case of the disgruntled student, the empathic statement could be followed up with, "It is important to manage disappointment appropriately. Let's talk after class about how you and I each see this paper."

The third requirement for empathic communication is the ability to articulate the other person's experience in a palatable way. Statements that sound accusatory, no matter how accurate, are not helpful. For example, saying "You are not as angry with me as you are with yourself for missing that assignment deadline" may be accurate but will probably be met with defensiveness.

Examples of Empathy at Work

The purpose of empathy is to create a climate in which a person feels understood. Once this is accomplished, attention can more easily focus on exploring the points of disagreement or solving the problem.

The sample empathic statements below are taken from actual faculty experiences. As you read them, consider the advantage of starting with an empathic statement. The advantage is that empathic statements leave little doubt in the listeners' minds that they were really heard, so it is not necessary for them to repeat themselves or press their points.

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