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Using empathy to facilitate difficult conversations

AmeriCorps member is pointing out something on high school student's page as they do work in the classroom

Karinne Caisse, City Year Sacramento Team Leader, shares how the tools and trainings that City Year provided help her navigate through difficult conversations with the students she serves every day.

Each and every day my teammates and I arrive at school, first circle at 7:30am sharp—black shoes, pressed pants, shirt tucked in, nametag, and that humble City Year jacket. Every morning, I show up physically ready. I also do my best to be emotionally and mentally ready, because I never know what my students will need, and while our days are filled with fun and positive interactions, sometimes the interactions can be challenging, too.

One of the many difficult conversations I find myself in is when a student tells me they’re bad. For example, one of my 4th grade students, Logan*, told me, “I can’t help it. I’m bad because I’m black.” Or the time 7th grader Arianna* found me after a particularly hard class and said, “Are you mad at me? I bet you’re mad at me. I know. I’m just so bad!” Both of these students took things they heard said about them or about people whom they related to, and accepted those external statements as a part of a truth about themselves – as part of their own self-image.

It upsets me to see the students I care about so much put themselves down. One of my roles as a City Year AmeriCorps member is to help students believe in themselves, and these types of hard conversations are the ones that can make a difference. Because of this, City Year is careful not to send its members into the schools we serve unprepared. We go through a number of trainings that develop our outlook on the world around us, and in turn, the way we approach these difficult conversations with students.

Empathy over sympathy

Tough, productive conversations with students only happen after you’ve developed a strong relationship. Those relationships are built on small moments — the games, the reading out loud together, the inside jokes and puns that you share with one another. As those relationships become deeper, they are founded on trust and empathy.

The staff at City Year Sacramento kicked off a conversation about the power of empathy vs sympathy with a Ted Talk by Brené Brown. It’s a vital conversation, because strong relationships have a foundation in the promise of empathy, not in the superficial experience of sympathy. City Year AmeriCorps members come from very diverse backgrounds, and one might hear, “I’ve never experienced the things my students have. So how can I relate to them? How can I have empathy?” Or the opposite—”My trauma was so real—what if I am triggered by the experiences that my students share with me, and can’t help them?”

“…One of the things we do sometimes in the face of very difficult conversations is we try to make things better. If I share something with you that’s very difficult, I’d rather you say, ‘I don’t even know what to say right now. I’m just so glad you told me.’ Because the truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”  – Brené Brown on Empathy

Half the learning is understanding that we often won’t have answers to the challenges our students face– and that’s ok. Being there for them, connecting them to resources when possible, is often all we can do. For people from all backgrounds, it’s important to understand that our response probably won’t make someone’s experiences better—but our ability to connect, and relationship build, will.

Another piece goes back to the question, “How can I relate to something I’ve never experienced?” City Year does its best to help us City Year AmeriCorps members understand student experiences by facilitating break-out discussion groups to create awareness, where we will sit and read an identity article together — articles on student immigrant experience, LGBT inclusivity in schools, African American male mentorship programs in Chicago, and so on and so forth — and then have a discussion about the article. These discussions allow us to reflect on what we’ve read, and to share our own experiences with one another before we find ourselves interacting with students who may have some of these experiences; and although I realize that reading about something or hearing about someone else’s experience doesn’t make me an expert, it does create an awareness that helps me have more genuine empathy for my students.

The difficult conversations are some of the most important ones to have. But, until we’ve shown our students we can empathize with them, that we can feel with them and that we care about their experiences, we won’t be able to successfully have those difficult conversations.

Focusing on the positives

I believe that every single one of my students is great. Sure—sometimes they don’t make the best choices. But, I do my best to remind them that it is up to them to decide if those choices are the ones they want to be defined by or not—and then take responsibility for those decisions. It is my goal to help them understand the greatness I see in them every day for themselves and own it with pride—so they are able to help themselves.

During Basic Training Academy, and throughout Learning and Development days, the concept of a growth mindset is one that was continually focused on and revisited. A growth mindset adds “yet” to everything, because it knows that everything is subject to change. “I can’t play violin — yet.” “I’m not good at reading—yet.” “I don’t get along with my teacher—yet.” Having a growth mindset creates expressions of change and of hope, and allows us and our students to view challenges as just that—challenges that we can work through, not obstacles that hold us back.

City Year also takes an asset-based approach to behavior redirection, which not only helps us see the best in our students, but helps them think about themselves in a positive way. To the student who consistently shouted out and made jokes and distracted her class, I said, “I see that you’re a leader.” Because she is. She has many friends, and they admire her, and they do what she does. It’s a strength. But I challenged her, and asked her to take control of that leadership. “Now it’s up to you. What kind of leader do you want to be? Because people follow you in class. Do you want to be the kind of leader who gets kids to joke in class and shout out and distract from learning? Or do you want to be the kind of leader who helps people learn, and who is willing to ask questions and help people out?” For most of us, our greatest strengths can be our greatest weaknesses. This student has the ability to use what she displays as a “weakness”—making jokes in class and pulling her peers off task—as a strength, using those strong relationships with her peers to lead a group in collaborative classwork. At City Year, we strive to help our students understand this concept, and to take responsibility for their actions.

Putting lessons learned into practice

The City Year staff at Sacramento shared with us the tips and tricks of relationship building that build the trust necessary between a student and City Year AmeriCorps member before having difficult conversations. Breakout groups created awareness around topics and issues that we may not have been aware of, or sure how to address. Finally, an asset-based approach to behavior redirection helps us to focus on the best in our students, and in turn, help them see it in themselves.

My students are learning to talk about themselves in more positive ways. They know I hold them to high expectations, but they also know that I will feel with them when they are hurting or struggling. They are beginning to recognize their challenges as challenges they can work through and not obstacles that stop them, and they are beginning to understand their strengths as strengths they can control. None of us are perfect. None of us become our better selves overnight. I can help my students discover their best selves, but I can’t make them embody that self; they have to decide that on their own. At City Year, we strive to show students what is already there and what we know they’re capable of, and challenge them to own it to reach their full potential.

*Student names changed for privacy

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