An educator who was taking my Mindful Communication class recently told me a story about how she practiced listening with empathy in a conversation with a student. Susan teaches 9th grade art. Avery, one of her students, was normally quite bubbly and cheerful. Recently, she’d started coming to school early and looking down.
After a few classes, Susan recognized that Avery needed to talk. They agreed to meet later, when Susan would have more time.
“I don’t want to go to this school anymore,”Avery said. She was thinking about dropping out or maybe trying to get home-schooled. Susan noticed her old habits rushing in: fix the situation, rescue Avery, and solve the problem. Having just finished our week’s lesson on empathy, she paused and decided to try listening instead.
“Tell me more. What’s going on?”
As Susan listened, Avery began to open up. She was being bullied. She felt sad, alone, and depressed. Tears began to flow, and Susan continued to listen lovingly. There were awkward silences every so often, when Avery would look up at Susan and hold her gaze with a questioning look on her face as if to say, “Is this okay? Can I go on?” Susan held her gaze. From time to time she would reflect what she was hearing or ask a clarifying question.
“I’ve felt like this since first grade,” Avery mentioned. “Was that the first time you felt so sad and alone?” Susan inquired. Avery realized that no, the first time was even younger—at age three—when her father had left home. They stopped and looked at each other, recognizing that they’d hit the root of her painful feelings of isolation.
Eventually they talked about what was next. Susan would help Avery address the bullying with the school administration. Avery decided to stick with school and to share her experience by doing an art project on depression.
The Patience to Listen
What would have happened if Susan hadn’t been mindful enough to restrain her impulse to fix the situation? Where might the conversation have ended if she had jumped to strategies right away and tried to convince Avery to stay in school?
So often we relate to uncomfortable emotions—our own and others— as problems to be fixed. We forget that emotions are information. They point to what matters in our heart.
In mindfulness practice, the first and most primary response to an emotion is to listen to it. Instead of trying to get away from it, avoid it, explain or rationalize it, fix it, solve it, or make it go away (we’re so good at that!), can we simply allow ourselves to feel it? When we give ourselves the space to feel our emotions, they can do their job of communicating their essential information about our needs and values. Once they’ve been “heard”—having received our full, conscious attention—they can move on their way.
The more we learn how to do this with our own emotions, the more patience we have to be with other’s feelings in a relaxed and spacious manner. This kind of presence and empathy is healing; it’s what so many of us—regardless of our age—hunger for.
So as you go about your week, I invite you to creating some more space for emotions in your life. Don’t be so quick to fix things. Listen a while. Let yourself feel what’s happening, and see what it has to teach you.
Share with your community!
This week, try to listen with empathy to someone. How did the conversation compare to situations when you tried to fix in the past? Share with fellow teachers in your school or on social media with #mindfulschools.
Want to learn more about empathy and listening? Our Mindful Communication Course offers eight-weeks of in-depth training in skillful communication with a Guiding Teacher and live webinar.