Empathy = Communication Magic

Parents sometimes come to Individual Education Plan meetings feeling intimidated and over whelmed. They often don’t feel like part of the team. Some describe going to meetings where it seemed everything had been decided prior to the meeting. Parents might be on edge despite the best efforts of the school staff to put them at ease. Misinformation causes problems. Well meaning friends, relatives and medical professionals sometimes put parents on the defensive with the school by telling them things like “the school has to…”, “…you will have to make them…”, “teachers won’t listen to you because you are just a parent…”, the list goes on. The parents who had a negative experience in their k-12 years are sometimes either defensive or intimidated. Teachers need to be sensitive to all this. Parents need to remember that teachers are trained professionals and not to make comments like, “You don’t have any training dealing with a child like mine.”  Respect, compassion and empathy are a good foundation for communication.

Most of us have some unspoken assumptions when we communicate with other people. All of us see things through the filter of our own experiences. Assumptions can create barriers before a conversation has started. People are multifaceted and each of us has many roles. In the course of a day adults might have interactions as a co-worker, parent, sibling, friend, spouse…. Young people have interactions as a son or daughter, friend, student… In each situation there are different assumptions based on who we are at the moment. Behind the current name all the others are still there. We really need to take that into account as we begin a conversation. Some conversations are doomed at the start because one of the individuals is having a hard time with something the other person does not have a clue about. Starting out with accepting what the other person is saying let’s them know you respect them. Acceptance also might help the other person feel comfortable opening up a bit more. Opening up to share more information or be more open to the views you want to express. Acceptance has a calming effect. You can accept someone’s views without agreeing. Many problems in this world would diminish significantly if humans weren’t so driven to try and get others to agree with their point of view. Accepting is also closely tied to listening and questioning.

Several years ago I was contacted by the mother of a 9th grader. She started out by requesting that I work my “magic” on the Pupil Services Director in her son’s school district. She was extremely upset with the school because they wanted her to sign a document agreeing to her son's placement at an alternate school setting for at least a quarter of the school year. He had behavior issues that the IEP team felt could not be addressed in a typical school setting. The Mom was also adamant that her son wasn’t any worse than any of the other troublesome students and they didn’t have to go somewhere else. I made sure I had her permission to contact the Pupil Services Director. (I was pretty sure she didn’t expect me to do magic without personal contact but it never hurts to check.) I contacted the Director and listened to him. I asked him a few questions and one of them was, “Does the student attend the IEP meetings?” The answer was yes. I did not realize at the time I asked that the information would make a difference with the outcome. After the conversation with the Director I knew there could not be a compromise with this particular situation. Social services and the court system were involved. I called the Mom back and explained my understanding of what was going on. After I had explained what the Director had said I asked her a question, “How is your son handling all this?”  She responded that he was pretty angry. It was at that point I said to her, “That must be hard for you to sit in the meetings with him knowing you are going to be taking home an upset kid.” She said it was very hard. I continued. “He probably gets angry you can’t fix the situation.” She agreed with that. Then I told her this, “You know once the court gets involved it’s out of the school’s hands and it’s out of your hands. That isn’t your fault, that’s just how it is. The sooner we can convince your son the better. There’s a chance they might order something more than just a day program if he keeps refusing.” I received a call from the Director the next day. He was a little shocked when the Mom came in (by herself) that morning and signed the necessary document.

I don’t think I worked “magic” on the Mom. I think the whole thing evolved the way it did because the parent expressed herself and I accepted what she said. I listened a lot and asked a few questions. I also expressed empathy for her situation. Often a little empathy can go a long way.

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