On a cold afternoon in mid-January a group of about twenty students, faculty and staff came together inside the Milgard Assembly Room on campus. They were there to learn, which isn’t surprising considering the location. What made this day different was the subject: empathy.
The idea to host workshops or “learning labs” on empathy started last summer following the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. “The co-interim Vice Chancellors of Student and Enrollment Services, Karl Smith and Kathleen Farrell, wanted to put something together to express solidarity and support the diversity of our students,” said the Director of Student Transition Programs Amanda Figueroa.
A group of staff from inside SAES formed a committee to brainstorm ideas. Tasked with creating a student-centered gathering, the committee decided to host an empathy lab based largely on Figueroa’s experience with the American Leadership Forum, a nonprofit organization that brings leaders together to strengthen communities. “We were learning a lot about the skills community leaders need to help create positive change,” said Figueroa. “One of the bigger takeaways for me was the importance of emotion.”
Figueroa describes herself as data driven and deliberate. Emotion, particularly in a professional setting, felt out of place. Figueroa’s thinking started to change through her work with a learning community connected to ALF. “They made space for empathy and I found that when I dropped my perfect words, when I spoke from my heart, when I was willing to emote, the way that people listened to me changed dramatically,” she said.
The Right Time
Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is no easy task. Empathy requires turning down the volume on your own noise to hear what the other person is saying. It also means withholding judgement about what is being said. For this reason, Figueroa and the rest of the team including Assistant Director of Student Engagement Elizabeth Hansen, took their time designing a program that encouraged cooperation and trust. “We were really intentional with the conversations we had around what we wanted the event to look like and what type of content we wanted to use,” said Hansen.
This emphasis on content became even more important following the 2016 election. Donald Trump’s victory sparked strong feelings on all sides with some expressing concern and fear while others responded with joy and optimism. Debates at the local and national levels have become heated and deeply personal.
With tensions this high, a workshop devoted to empathy seems both necessary and challenging. “It’s hard when someone comes at you with something that is the polar opposite of everything you believe,” said Hansen. “This isn’t an easy thing to do which is why we need to practice.”
There’s an important distinction that Figueroa wants to make clear. Being empathetic doesn’t mean giving up your beliefs; understanding isn’t the same as agreeing. “I don’t see how we move forward without the ability to recognize the humanity of everyone,” she said. “Listening to someone we disagree with can be a really hard thing and yet listening to them and being able to empathize does not change my truth and does not automatically change my opinion. “
Nuts and Bolts
Empathy and vulnerability are related concepts. Telling your story requires a certain level of comfort with someone. You have to know the other person or persons will be supportive. This is fairly easy to do with friends and family, but how do you build a safe space in a room full of people who may or may not know each other? “What we were asking of people can feel a little strange and even scary,” said Figueroa.
The planning committee ultimately came up with a program that emphasized voluntary sharing, education, and practice. Participants would be invited to fill out a “My Experience” card. Here they would be encouraged to describe a moment of oppression they personally experienced or witnessed and how that situation made them feel.
Participants would have the chance to practice empathetic responses but not before some guidelines were established. Author Dr. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, has identified different elements of what empathy as a practice looks like. They include: accepting that the perspective someone shares is their truth, not making judgements, recognizing what another person is feeling and feeling it with them, and communicating your connection with their feelings without trying to “fix” anything. Attendees receive a quick run-through of these principles and a demonstration of how these ideas work in conversation before breaking into groups to practice.
Empathetic responses are recorded on an “Action of Empathy” card. Listeners jot down a nonjudgmental comment on what was shared. The experience and empathy cards are incorporated, along with a signed pledge to act with empathy, into a banner. “We wanted to create a visual artifact that would be representative of the purpose, that would build a sense of community with each other,” said Figueroa.
Meiling Sproger knew what she wanted to share. The UW Tacoma student used to work in the service industry and recalled an interaction she had with a customer. “I was taking ticket orders and people in the lobby were speaking loudly,” she said. “It was hard to hear so I asked the customer to repeat his order and he asked me ‘do you speak English.’” Sproger who is of Asian descent, was hurt by the comment. “It’s a stereotype that Asians have accents and are not perceived as educated,” she said. “I felt like I was put in a box that I didn’t belong.”
Sproger talked about this experience during the learning lab. “No one told me I was wrong to feel this way, they just listened,” she said. Being heard helped validate Sproger’s feelings and it also helped her connect with others. “It gave me a chance to build community, to see that other people are going through similar struggles and to feel more in solidarity with them,” she said.
Sproger decided to attend the lab out of a desire to build her skills with face-to-face interaction. She believes people are increasingly spending more time with their devices and less time communicating in person. “Human connection is important,” she said. “We need to be able to open up personally and get past superficial information about ourselves.”
Empathy isn’t something that can be mastered in one session. Sproger valued the experience and hopes to get a chance to learn more. “If you do it once and then you set it down you’re just going to forget it,” she said.
Amanda Figueroa put it another way. “It’s a muscle,” she said. “The more you use it the better.” Figueroa followed her own advice. She and Elizabeth Hansen served as co-facilitators of the lab. They had both spent months going over the material and were familiar with what would happen during the sessions. The intense preparation didn’t lessen the impact of what was being discussed. Figueroa cried as she discussed her experience with the group. Interim Vice Chancellor Karl Smith approached Figueroa and gave her a hug. “He couldn’t do anything to fix what I was talking about but it was still a powerful gesture,” she said.
Hansen also shared her story. She said the experience helped validate what she was feeling. “It’s amazing how just saying it out loud changes the way you’re interpreting it for yourself and to hear someone else listen and to not feel judgment was great.”
The goal of bringing people together appears to have paid off—at least temporarily. Figueroa and Hansen both report participants engaged in conversation with each other long after the lab concluded. “We had people in the space 45 minutes after the event ended who were still talking,” said Figueroa.
The next workshop is scheduled for Wednesday, March 29 at 12:30 pm in William Philip Hall and is open to all students, faculty and staff. It’s hard to know what impact these empathy labs will have. What chance does a thirty-minute lesson in tolerance have against a steady torrent of information and opinions that constantly demands our attention and our outrage? Turns out empathy may be just the thing to keep those forces at bay if we’re willing to embrace the idea. “Empathy is a pause button,” said Hansen. “It’s that extra second of thought that says, ‘hold on,’ that says ‘wait.’ ”
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org