Our thoughts influence how we feel and our feelings affect how we behave. It is only when we are listened to empathically that we are able to unpick how one affects the other. We make links between feelings and thoughts all the time in our daily lives. As a school leader, you do this constantly and probably do not realise the impact that the inter-relationship has on your levels of confidence and performance in the role.
For example, you feel miserable when you think about the school governor who constantly attempts to override your decisions; or you feel angry when you think about the member of staff who never has a good word to say about anything (particularly about you!); or you feel apprehensive when you think about a meeting that went wrong, knowing you don’t want the same thing to happen the next time around.
All of these are natural emotions. The danger that many school leaders fall victim to is that, left unprocessed, these emotions cause an internal blockage, so the ability to lead oneself with integrity becomes severely limited. These people may find themselves in situations where they begin to lose confidence. As a result they act in ways which, far from increasing their self-confidence, actually diminish it.
They adopt behaviours that do not match the image of the leader they really want to be. When they catch themselves behaving ‘out of character’, they may feel a mixture of shame, embarrassment, frustration, hurt and anger – emotions which, left unprocessed, decrease their ability to lead themselves and others with confidence and authenticity.
Through empathic listening, blockages are cleared, allowing the person to become more in tune with their own emotions; to learn not to run away from them, but to listen and understand them, and thus develop greater self-awareness and understanding. There is an increase in alignment between inner and outer worlds. Energy is not wasted in doing battle with negative internal emotions; energies are directed into developing behaviours that are congruent with the vision they truly wish to develop.
Making the crooked straight
Empathic listening also helps the individual to recognise and change their faulty thought processes, referred to by Butler and Hope as ‘crooked thinking’ (2005).
Have a look at the list below and see if any of these 8 faulty thought processes are familiar to you:
1. Catastrophising – Predicting the worst outcome. If something goes wrong it will be a complete disaster. ‘If I make a mistake that will be the end for me.’
2. Overgeneralising – Assuming that because something happened once, it will always happen. ‘They always forget to do the things I ask.’
3. Exaggerating – Giving negative events more importance than they deserve and giving positive events less importance. ‘This letter of complaint from Mr Jones means all parents are going to start complaining.’
4. Discounting the positive – Rejecting good things as if they did not count (or using a negative filter). ‘When they said that, they didn’t really mean it. After all I know that I’m not really any good at writing reports.’
5. Mind reading – Believing that you know what others are thinking. ‘They know I’ve made a mess of this. They all think that I am incompetent.’
6. Black-and-white thinking – Switching from one extreme to another. ‘If I can’t get this right, I might as well give up altogether.’
7. Taking things personally – When someone asks you to do something differently, for example. ‘You’re criticising me.’
8. Emotional reasoning – Mistaking feelings for facts. ‘I’m so worried; I know something is going to go wrong.’
These faulty ways of thinking can severely limit someone’s potential for dealing with the emotional demands of school leadership. Faulty inner dialogue hampers our ability to think clearly and to search for healthy ways for our emotional needs to be met.
However, when we are listened to empathically, we are supported to adopt a different point of view. We are helped to think differently and – as a result – to feel differently. Therefore, empathic listening becomes the prime vehicle through which your emotional needs can be met. It becomes the means through which you:
– Come to know and trust yourself.
– Clarify your thinking and adopt new ways of being.
– Find the courage to learn how to change and grow.
– Discover meaning from your own life experiences.
– Build bonds of trust in your relationships with others.
– See the legitimacy of your own feelings validated through
– The empathic response of another.
– Learn how to take care of and nurture yourself.
When we are listened to empathically, we are given a gift; a gift that enriches our experience of what it means to be human. We discover that empathy is about being able to enter:
The private perceptual world of the other […] means being sensitive moment by moment, to the changing felt meanings which flow in this other person, to the fear, rage or tenderness or whatever he or she is experiencing. It means temporarily living in the other’s life, moving about in it delicately without making judgements […] Being empathetic is complex, demanding and strong – yet also a subtle and gentle way of being.
Rogers (1975) quoted in Pask and Joy (2007)
For a school leader, empathy may be the best remedy for healing the pain of your unmet emotional needs. It reminds you that, amidst the chaos of school life, you are worthy, you are valuable, and your story has the right to be listened to.
That’s why I’m now offering FREE “Coaching for the Soul” Calls to give school leaders the opportunity and space where you can be listened to in this way. This 30 minute call is also designed to give senior leaders a chance to:
– Talk through and get support with the challenges you’re currently facing
– Explore what you want out of life as a School Leader
– Reflect on recent events and the impact they have had on you
– Gain clarity in your thoughts and your current situation