Communicating With Empathy
Feelings and emotions are what the childcare profession is all about. Feelings for the children, the families, and yes, even co-workers is what makes this profession so fantastic. Yet, feelings make it so difficult to maintain professional boundaries and communicate constructively on an ongoing, consistent basis.
Perhaps you share, along with many of my clients, one of the biggest challenges in maintaining professional boundaries and consistently communicating constructively. This challenge is managing your feelings while communicating or while working to resolve an issue.
Here are a couple of case scenarios to illustrate how feelings can get in the way of communicating constructively.
Case Scenario 1: Joanne is Sarah Smith’s teacher. Here’s what she said to a co-worker today. “Mrs. Smith just doesn’t care! I can’t believe she continues to send Sarah to school with a doughnut and chocolate milk for breakfast in spite of our efforts to get the children to eat healthier. Not to mention the fact that Sarah has a weight problem. And not to mention the fact that all the other children see Sarah with a doughnut and they want one, too! She’s hopeless!”
Case Scenario 2: Joanne has to talk to a parent today about late fees that are owed for late pick-up. Joanne struggles with this because she knows the parent doesn’t have a lot of money and she can totally relate because she often feels she, herself, never has enough money, either. So she feels it’s better to put off trying to collect the money because that’s what she would like the people to whom she’s indebted to do for her.
In each case scenario can you identify the feelings and emotions that may prevent Joanne from communicating constructively?
In the first case scenario Joanne is feeling anger and resentment. Additionally, she’s judging the parent instead of empathizing with the parent. In the second case scenario Joanne is actually relating with the parent to the point where her own feelings are preventing her from addressing the issue at hand.
When it comes to communicating constructively, empathy is a vital tool to implement. Empathy allows you to understand things from the other person’s perspective without judging (including making snap judgments or jumping to conclusions) and without blaming. This is so important, yet requires much skill to implement.
So how can you master this skill of communicating with empathy? Here are a few tips to help you.
1. Focus on the facts and benefits of resolving the issue and solutions.
2. Remember another’s behavior is not an attack on you personally. So leave yourself out of it.
3. Ask yourself or brainstorm with others about the reasons the person may be displaying the undesirable behavior. Why is this person doing what they’re doing?
4. Ask yourself or brainstorm with others about the possible motivation the person has to make changes in what they’re doing. What is important to this person? Why would what I’m requesting be important to him or her?
5. When having positive and direct communication with the person, use phrases such as: “I value,” “I trust,” “I understand” and “I appreciate.”
Let’s put these tips to work to see how Joanne in Case Scenario 1 communicates with empathy and achieves positive, constructive results.
Joanne follows tip 1 and 2: She focuses on facts, benefits and solutions and removes herself personally. She asks herself: how can I best communicate with Sarah’s mom to help her help Sarah eat healthier?
Next Joanne follows tips 3 and 4: She truly seeks to understand things from Sarah’s mom’s perspective through reflecting upon why Sarah’s mom feeds Sarah a doughnut for breakfast and what could possibly motivate her to change.
Did she want to give Sarah a treat? Was she simply in too much of a hurry to feed Sarah something healthier? Or perhaps was it a little of both?
After brainstorming with her director, Joanne now feels ready to communicate with Sarah’s mom with empathy. She follows tip 5: Starting on a positive note, Joanne states, “I understand your wanting to give Sarah a treat because you don’t get to spend much time with her. One of our priorities in working with children and families is to make sure their nutritional needs are met. We can’t do this alone–we have to partner with families to meet this goal. Is this a goal that you value? Great! Here’s how we can make this happen…”
The conversation continues and positive, constructive results are achieved.
© 2001-2009 Julie Bartkus. All Rights Reserved. Julie Bartkus is an author, speaker, consultant and coach.
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