On empathy

I was reading about an interesting initiative called The Empathy Museum that is coming to my hometown (you can find out more about it here) and caught myself thinking about the times I put my foot in my mouth. Then, new windows opened in my mind’s browser and I started wondering about the (probably many) times I might have failed to notice I had done that. I know this may sound a bit gloomy, but bear with me. This is essentially an optimistic post.

You see, just like everyone else, I believe I’m a generally good and fair person, and I truly think I do the best I can with the repertoire I’ve got. And that’s a good thing! But we can always be better, right? We can always be fairer.

I usually post about my experience in teaching and professional development. Today, I’ll take a more personal route. What you’ll read below is not a treaty, the result of a scientific study or a piece of advice. They are not tips. But rather a random collection of random questions I’ve been trying to ask myself (not in a systematic or planned way, mind you) in order to try to be less biased and contribute to a healthier learning and work environment.

Important disclaimer: I’m not in any way specialist in the subject, nor am I resorting to reliable sources. This is just my mind rambling on about how I could try to be more empathetic towards my learners, those who work with me or people I come across online. Feel free to give me some pointers me if I’m putting my foot in my mouth again!

Am I empathetic towards my learners?

  • Is there anything they may be going through that I’m not aware of?
  • Could there be an explanation for their behaviour that is not a label (e.g. ‘they’re lazy’; ‘they’re stupid’; ‘they are rude’; ‘they’re incorrigible’; ‘they’re an attention seeker’ etc.).
  • What actions do I take to show my student they can trust me?
  • Could my words affect their self-esteem, their self-image or make them feel inferior to their classmates?
  • Do I give signs of regarding their opinion as not valid or wrong simply because it is different from my own?
  • Can my actions be interpreted as patronising, arrogant or distant by someone who is used to being patronised, looked down on or cast aside?
  • Could their motivation be something other than annoy me or the other students?
  • Do I make myself available to them before and after the lesson?
  • Do I make comments (in the staff room, outside school or online) that make fun of my learners?


Am I empathetic towards those whom I regard as belonging to a higher hierarchical position?

  • Could they know something I don’t or be aware of something I’m not?
  • Do I suppose they have received unfair advantages to reach their current position?
  • Am I assuming that the they have an agenda against me or are hiding something from me?
  • Am I showing I genuinely care about their well-being?
  • Could they be doing what they are because this will benefit a third party  (e.g. my colleague, my learners etc.)?
  • Do I recognise their qualities, knowledge and skills, or do I assume my way would be better?
  • Am I trying to see their perspective or am I just thinking about my individual goals and needs?
  • Do I show signs of resistance or disregard to ideas they propose?
  • Do I make an effort to understand feedback they give me rather than explain or defend myself?


Am I empathetic towards those who feel they are in a lower hierarchical position?

  • Do I help them see the things they do well, or just the areas for improvement?
  • Am I expecting them to have the same reactions I would have in the same situation?
  • How would I feel if my superior said the same thing to me?
  • Am I assuming that they can take corrective feedback the same way I do?
  • What am I doing to genuinely show I’m listening to their ideas and contributions?
  • Do I consult them before I make decisions and do I take their opinions on board?
  • Do I believe they should consider themselves lucky to listen to my ideas or have contact with me?
  • Do I have evidence that this is an appropriate moment for me to say what I want to say?


Am I empathetic towards my peers?

  • Do I ask questions about their life outside work?
  • Do I assume they are less capable than me because of an innate characteristic they have or different professional or personal trajectory?
  • Am I aware of everything they have on their plate?
  • Do I believe their needs, fears and wishes are the same as mine?
  • Am I assuming they can cope with what I can in terms of workload and emotional distress?
  • Do I expect them to perform tasks the same way I do?
  • Can my actions be interpreted as arrogant, patronising or unfair by someone who’s been treated unfairly before by other people?
  • Do I invite their opinions more than give my own?
  • In the staff room, do I say that doing something is ‘stupid’, ‘wrong’, or ‘a rookie’s mistake’?
  • Do I refrain from making jokes or sarcastic comments that focus on others’ characteristics, background or beliefs?


Am I empathetic towards people I interact with online?

  • Am I acknowledging the validity of their idea, even if I strongly disagree with it?
  • Do I presume they have the same living and work conditions as I do?
  • Do I suppose their history, traumas and achievements are similar to mine?
  • Could a person used to being bullied, offended or discriminated against interpret my post or comment as bullying, offence or discrimination, even if it is not my intention?
  • Am I assuming the person was ill-intended when they posted or commented?
  • Am I validating a comment or post that could have offended a third party?
  • Could the person interpret my comment or post as sarcasm or derogatory joke?
  • Am I conveying the idea that my opinion is more ‘correct’ or ‘accurate’ than theirs?
  • Do I really need to present a counter-argument or contradict their idea?
  • Am I assuming I know their reason to make the post or comment?


If you’ve managed to read this far, thank you for taking the time to “listen”. And do let me know what your personal take on empathy is, and how you try to be a more empathetic person. I’m all ears!

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Rubens Heredia

I'm a co-founder of the blog and an Academic Coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo, where I'm responsible for course design, teacher training and e-learning initiatives. Having transitioned from a BA in Law to becoming a DELTA holder and a CELTA and ICELT tutor, I'm currently taking an MA in TESOL at NILE (University of Chichister). I'm also the proud owner of a whippet, a cat a fish and a rabbit!

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