Every once in a while, life reminds me that I still have more to learn. My friend George called me last week in distress. He teaches English at a college in the South, and the dean had just informed him that his assignment has changed. Going forward, instead of teaching classes he would be in charge of the Writing lab.
I thought this was a wonderful development. I recalled how difficult it was for George to keep up with grading homework and tests. Being in charge of the Writing lab sounded to me like the perfect situation for him.
But George’s tone of voice made it clear that he did not see it that way. He spoke about this new assignment as something terrible.
I reminded George of the difficulties he had in the past in keeping up with the grading, and how student complaints about this almost derailed his career. I asked George why he was upset about something that to my mind was a very positive development. In response, George told me how much he loved teaching, and how the idea of being in the lab felt awful.
George is a good friend, and hearing him so distressed was hard on me, especially since I was convinced that he was misreading the situation. So I again explained why I thought that the Writing lab was the perfect situation for him.
George responded by saying, “You might be right, but at this moment I can’t hear it. I’m devastated by the loss of my teaching.”
I felt my breath catch. In my Communicating with Compassion course, I teach that when emotions are present, the first thing people need is to be “heard, understood and acknowledged”. I refer to this as “the Principle of Empathy”. And yet, I was so eager to relieve my friend of his suffering, that I acted contrary to my own teaching. Rather than “hear and understand” what George was saying and then respond by “acknowledging”, I tried to convince him that he was mistaken. This is a major communication mistake.
Realizing that I made a mistake, I shifted gears. I stopped trying to convince George that his new job assignment was a godsend. Instead, I listened to his hurt and tried to understand what he was feeling and experiencing.
The result of listening empathically was that George began to share more. It turned out that in addition to the loss of teaching, George was concerned that getting moved to the Writing lab might be a first step to losing his job. In other words, what George shared with me in the first conversation was only the tip of the iceberg. The bigger concern was shared later. And he was able to share that with me because I stopped trying to convince him of my point of view and instead started listening.
George got the last word, though. A few days after our conversation, he said to me: “It’s good to know that experts who teach this stuff for a living also make mistakes.” And he was right. Because George was a good friend and his distress touched my heart, I forgot some things that I teach. Good thing he was there to remind me.