EdD Program

Effective Communication: Seeking to Understand and Listening for Empathy

I had the opportunity to present about coaching for equity at a P-12 educational conference a few weeks ago. As part of the conversational exchange between participants, we discussed the importance of practicing effective communication in all our conversations; a topic that I decided to share for my Monday Morning Message.

Three elements of effective communication involve how the sender and receiver process feelings, data, and credibility within a discussion. The speaker/sender needs to be aware that the receiver first processes what has been shared through their own feelings and past experiences before they consider any data that has been presented to support the speaker’s statements. This is where trust within the relationship becomes a factor. If the receiver has had negative experiences in the past with the communicator, or with someone who shows similar “ways of being,” there can be limited credibility in the person and in the information that has been shared.

I experienced an example of this a few years ago when I was told by an employee of color that she would never trust me because I am a white woman. I was horrified and found myself immediately wanting to defend myself, which simply would have reinforced a position of power and privilege. Instead, I knew I needed to consciously acknowledge her concerns and actively listen without ever expecting her to trust me in return. I knew I needed to take responsibility to authentically demonstrate respect with consistency, transparency, and integrity.

I have learned to ask myself, “Am I entering into the communication seeking to understand even if I don’t want to hear what the other person is saying?” When I find myself not listening to what someone is saying, I must reflect about what bias, assumption, or personal fear is being triggered. Humans can sometimes enter a conversation seeking affirmation for their beliefs; even to the point we can make ourselves right (Knight, 2016). We might adopt what is referred to as a “clever” story; a story that supports a stereotype or assumption without ever taking the time to really find out the truth. Whereas, when we, as the communicator, take an invitational stance, we can share knowledge and decisions that enable “all individuals involved to contribute to and learn from the interaction” (Foss & Foss, 2003, p, 11).

I also ask myself, “Am I being fully present during the conversation?” Being fully present in a conversation means I am not thinking about what I need to get done after the meeting ends, or what I am going to say next – which can be an indication of feeling superior in that what I have to say is more important. If I share a thought or idea, and then ask a question that hands the conversation back to the partner, it becomes a more active exchange of ideas.

Listening with empathy is the meaningful way to understand someone else’s perspective. Listening with empathy does not mean I need to have the answers; it means I consciously and compassionately hold space for another human being to feel with them; not for them. Empathy can create positive change by challenging our assumptions of others; by making the time to recognize and value others’ viewpoints. Brown (2018) reminds us, “It is only when diverse perspectives are included, respected, and valued that we can start to get a full picture of the world, who we serve, what they need, and how to successfully meet people where they are” (p. 144).

-Aguilar, A. (2020). Coaching for equity: Conversations that change practice. Jossey-Bass.
-Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead. Random House.
-Foss, S. K. & Foss, K. A. (2003). Inviting transformation: Presentational speaking for a change world (2ndedition). Waveland Press.
-Knight, J. (2016). Better conversations: Coaching ourselves and each other to be more credible, caring and connected. Corwin.

Writer, Professional Learning & Coaching Consultant, Associate Professor - CTT