In this article Tessa Woodward explores the idea of empathy as a feature of self-awareness.

In the introductory article in this series we looked at Teacher educator self-awareness, what it is and why it is important in our work. I offered a couple of ideas for self-observation which is a starting point for self-awareness. In this article I will explore the idea of empathy as a feature of self-awareness.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to be aware of, be sensitive to and vicariously experience the feelings and situations of another from their perspective, whether they are experiencing joy, bewilderment, satisfaction or other emotions. Feeling empathy can run from being able to see things from another's point of view in a discussion, to being so in tune with another’s emotion that, almost by emotional contagion, we feel similar emotions, perhaps a lightness in our chest or a sinking feeling in our stomach, and show these by, for example, smiling or having teary eyes.

An empathetic person applies their knowledge of the plights of others to inform their emotional responses to these situations, and then acts in line with such emotions. For example, knowing how and why someone came to miss work… because of the illness of a spouse or child, or the failure of public transport due to a strike, or for grief at a recent bereavement ... can inform the initial irritation that we might experience and can help motivate us to figure out what to do to help the situation.

Is empathy a good thing?

If we are chairing a discussion and are able to be aware of the different feelings of the participants, we may bring quiet people in, tactfully stop over-talkative people from dominating, sense when a topic needs to move on, enjoy a joke, sum up fairly… in short, having empathy with others at the meeting will enable us to perform well. If, however, on another occasion, we feel the upset of a staff member so acutely that we become personally distressed, it may make us less able to provide comfort and relevant information to them because we are so bound up with dealing with our own emotions.

In our professional lives then, as teacher trainers, teacher educators and mentors, we need to develop the degree of empathy that helps us to display professionally useful behaviour. By this I mean things like, better understanding the needs of our co-workers, better understanding what is unspoken, and seeing more clearly the perception we create in others with our words and actions. This is likely to promote trust and thus, in turn, open, honest communication. If we are not naturally empathic, we need to be aware of this. If we are by nature overly empathic, we also need to be aware of this. And this last implies we need to have empathy for ourselves as well as for other people.

In what professional situations do we need empathy?

There are many times in our professional lives when we need to have empathy with those we work with. Here are a few questions….
Do we work hard to remember the names and details of our participants, help them become part of a professional community, included, comfortable and valued?

Do we consider how teachers feel about being observed, or becoming students again in our training sessions, or when having their lesson plans and assignments inspected, receiving feedback on their lessons, undergoing staff appraisal interviews, being given a teaching timetable?

Do we understand how they feel about their own teacher development, what kind of professional development they might appreciate, how they want to learn? Can we build relationships of trust and create positive learning environments to help them engage with development?

Do we sometimes have to deal with conflict? This is another time when we can try to understand other people’s motivations and fears.

Two pieces of luck

When considering empathy at work, we can count on two pieces of luck.

The first is that we are working in the field of education with people who are learning. And we ourselves have been through years of sitting in other people’s classes, being trained and educated and, hopefully, are still learning. So, we know what it is like to have too much homework, an overdue assignment, a good or disappointing grade, or a difficult lesson or student. We know how it feels to be ignored or outvoted at a meeting. All we have to do is remember what that is like and plug into that feeling. And then, Bingo! We can better understand the teacher we are working with and can feel and show real interest and compassion!

The second piece of luck is that empathy can be exercised.

Reading through and thinking about the texts in this series so far… on self-awareness, openness, conscientiousness, and interactivity (which includes sections on roadblocks to communication and on good listening) can act as a good warm up for when we try the following exercises!

⇒ We can start by trying to focus our attention on the welfare, interests, and needs of the people we work with. How are they today?

⇒ We can consider shared human values
Most people on the planet, regardless of country, culture or context would like to have food, water, shelter, safety, health, meaningful activity and personal happiness. By concentrating on these shared desires, rather than on the differences between us all, we stand a chance of feeling truly empathetic when one or more of these needs or preferences is denied the person or people we are working with.

⇒ We can suspend, temporarily, our own judgments, solutions and critiques
Many of us go into teacher education because we think we like to help. But trying too quickly to analyse a situation, to judge, to comment on or ‘fix’ it, loses us an opportunity to empathise. Quite often the person we are with does not want anything ‘fixed’ anyway. They simply want to tell someone what they are experiencing. Once trust has been gained by good listening, and if the person talking asks for comment, then that is the time, later, for us to join in.

⇒ We can use our imagination!
We can try to imagine the detail, the logic, the view of the other person. We can put aside our own thoughts and beliefs just for the moment and ask open questions such as, ‘When you say…., can you tell me a bit more what you mean?’ ‘Can you tell me more about ………….?’.

Further reading

Many novelists encourage readers to exercise their powers of empathy by writing about characters that, at first, seem unsympathetic. An example here is:

One little mistake by Emma Curtis (2017) Black Swan publishing.

About the author

Tessa Woodward is an ELT consultant, teacher, and teacher trainer. She has trained teachers in Japan, Switzerland, the UK, USA, and in many European countries. She is the founder editor of The Teacher Trainer journal (Pilgrims), Past President and International Ambassador of IATEFL and founded the IATEFL Special Interest Group for Teacher Trainers (now the SIG T Ed/TT). She is the author of many books and articles for language teachers and teacher trainers. Tessa is also the founder of The Fair List.

The other articles in this series discuss ways for teacher educators to develop:

Research and insight

Browse fascinating case studies, research papers, publications and books by researchers and ELT experts from around the world.

See our publications, research and insight