In over four decades of teaching college students, I am able to remember only an infinitesimal fraction of the hundreds of students who passed through my classroom. Usually the ones I recall are either the superior students or those who probably should have not pursued a college education.
One memorable student, however, was in neither category. I remember him not because of his academic ability or lack thereof, but because we had a conversation that humbled and embarrassed me.
The class was a summer session of “Effective Listening Skills.” (Watch for the irony here.) The first day of class, a young man fell asleep within the first few minutes of my lecture. I was distracted by this but let it go. The second day of class, he again promptly fell asleep. This time I allowed my emotions to take over. I was so frustrated that in the middle of my lecture I awoke him and asked to see him in the hall. I told the class I would be back in a few minutes.
I closed the door to the classroom and began to tell him, probably not with the kindest of words, that I did not tolerate sleeping in my class and that I highly recommended he drop my class. I’m sure I was nonverbally showing my displeasure as well.
Then the young man dropped his head and in a monotone voice apologized. Then he added, “My mother’s funeral was Saturday and I have been unable to sleep. I have really had a tough time.” My attitude changed immediately. I apologized for my outburst and sought to comfort him, suggesting he might want to talk to his minister or priest.
This taught me a valuable lesson: don’t criticize someone until you have taken the time to learn why the offensive behavior is occurring. Another way of saying this is that I needed to empathize.
Empathy is putting yourself in another person’s shoes. It is a nonjudgmental, non- evaluative response to the words or actions of a person. Another definition I like is that empathy is listening with the heart.
After that experience, I started asking questions when a person was behaving in a way not appropriate for the context. Since then, I try not to judge but instead to understand the source of the problem. I work to give the person some leeway before I react to the aberrant behavior that offends me or distracts me.
Everyone has a bad day and says and does things he or she regrets. Take that human trait into consideration when responding to a person who engages in behavior unacceptable to you. Communication is not an exact science.
And accept the fact that your efforts to empathize may still need work, as was the case with a certain hostess. At a party, a guest had volunteered to sing “My Old Kentucky Home.”
As the hostess stood at the back of the room observing the audience, she noticed a gentleman silently weeping. At the end of the piece, she walked over to the man. Seeking to comfort him, she said, “I’m sorry you are so sad. Are you a Kentuckian?”
“No,” the man replied, “I’m a musician.”
So sometimes even our best efforts at empathy may backfire.