The following material is adapted from my 2002 book, Teaching and Learning Peace (Madison, WI: Atwood), a text that is being used for the infusion of sustainable peace studies into the curriculum at the University of Ngozi and other campuses in Burundi. These ideas are equally relevant for schools, colleges and universities in the U.S. as well as in our churches, organizations and businesses. Everyone can benefit when conflicts are resolved through improved communication.
In the case of Andrea, empathy played a part. From her perspective, this class bordered on a waste of time; her frustration was rising. In our own small group section of a first year seminar, a class dedicated to helping students make a successful transition from high school to college, we took quite a bit of time to discuss this case. It proved to be a wonderful case study that had meaning for everyone. I encouraged Andrea and the others to approach this instructor with some forethought, to understand the problem from her point of view, to offer a clear analysis based on their own experiences and then to make a clear and responsible request. This model of “empathic expressing” offers students some structure for discussing difficult issues or conflicts with someone else. It builds on mutual understanding, empathy and trust as a foundation for effective communication.
When her chemistry class met again, Andrea walked up after class and repeated what she had practiced in our small group discussion section, “Hi. You know, a lot of us are struggling in this class and some examples would really help. I like it when you explain what’s in the book. I read the material outside of class but I need help with understanding it.” The teacher smiled and said, “Sure. I can try to do that.”
In subsequent classes, Andrea reported that she could see some improvements. So she went up again and told this teacher how she appreciated the effort, that it was making a difference. What a mood shift for Andrea. From being just another whiner, she took some initiative, identified her needs and frustrations, expressed some empathy and offered a solution. Her whole attitude about this class changed as well. Not that everything turned around immediately, but she did move off the negative and toward a positive, constructive and assertive approach to the problem she was having. Empathy helped her make this shift and build a better communication bridge with her instructor.
Description of the problem: What’s the communication model here? It begins with a clear description of the problem. Andrea was bored with a mere repetition of what was in the text. She usually was up-to-date for class with her readings. She needed explanations, concrete examples to make sense of the theories, concepts and principles but didn’t know how could she get any level of individual responsiveness in such a large lecture class. Although it took some time in our own class and with the collective help of her classmates, we did finally get through her frustrations and identify the problem affecting her learning.
I-message: The next step was to practice with language which would keep the ownership of the issue with Andrea and her experience. Instead of leading with criticism–“You know, the way you teach is boring”—we shifted to a statement of feelings: “When you just review what is in the book, I get really frustrated…” or “…I feel bored.” No one can argue with Andrea’s experience and feelings here. It’s not as if there is some objective line beyond which a class automatically becomes boring for every student. An I-message is more honest and personal; you have to own your own feelings, but you also understand that no one can take those feelings away or judge them as “wrong.”
A reason why: The next step is to give a reason for your feelings, an explanation. The immature child will pout, “I’m bored” but have no explanation of why or idea about a solution. “Fix it, mom” or “Entertain me, dad” is the underlying message. For Andrea, giving a reason meant saying, “When you just lecture from the text, I do get bored and frustrated because I read the material already. However, I do have questions and I need some help.
Express empathy: The next step for Andrea was to show some empathy for what this instructor might be feeling. We discussed a number of possibilities. Because this was a young teacher, we thought about using the following response: “I know you must be nervous and want to stay close to the assigned readings. I know this is your very first teaching assignment.” This instructor was right out of graduate school and wanted to do well as a stepping stone to a permanent position somewhere else. She was commuting sixty plus miles each way and was largely cut off from other faculty. And, she was advised by the course coordinator to “stay close to the text.” Andrea’s attempt at empathy was right on target—the instructor was anxious–and, in return, Andrea got a better understanding about why. This instructor was a real person with real feelings.
Identify a positive: Important in communication about a problem is to hold out the expectation that a solution is possible. In this case Andrea said the following: “I know the lectures can work better for me. When you gave examples or stopped to answer questions, it made a real difference. It helped me could get the idea better.” Here, Andrea was providing a concrete example herself of something that helped.
Make a clear request: Instead of simply asking this instructor to “do better,” instead of just leaving it up to her to figure out a solution, Andrea then offered the following. “I would like you to add more examples in your lectures. These help a lot. I’d also like you to stop and ask for questions more often. And I’ll try to see you after class or during office hours if there is something I am still confused about.” Although it took some time to work through these steps and although the very idea of approaching an instructor in a big lecture class to say all this seemed frightening at first, taking this kind of initiative made a big difference for Andrea. She learned some important lessons about advocating for herself in a responsible and effective manner.
Local applications where you live: Again, we pose the challenge: What and where can you imagine these ideas working effectively in your community? How can we work together to infuse these kinds of basic peacebuilding ideas and skills in your schools, on your campuses, and in your organizations?