Hearing Voices as a Good Thing: Listening with Empathy

3 Dec
Old Road way marker in Llandudno, North Wales.

Old Road. Llandudno, North Wales.

Perspective Shaping and Shifting

Those students in front of us – in the classroom, across the office desk, behind the words on the paper you reviewed last night, in your memory as you review student evaluations – are responding to all manner of emotions, events, and excitements beyond the moment we interact with them, are standing in at least two worlds as we interact.

When students come to us – generally, but let’s go with specifically at this time of the term as deadlines, closure, exams, holiday’s and next years begin pressing in – they come as actors.  People with stories, people with agency, people who are perplexed and complex.

When teachers sit with students – generally, but here let’s go with end-of-term time when we are rushing toward course conclusions, dissertation defenses, approaching conference abstract or presentation deadlines creeping alongside holiday plans and desires for mindful writing time – we come into the interactions as observers.  People who’ve taken in the many stories, trod through the scads of explanations, and toughed our way through the puzzles-without-borders scenarios students bring to our attention – sometimes more indirectly than directly.

Social psychologists Edward Jones and Richard Nisbett note the importance of distinguishing between the “observer’s perspective” – here the teachers observing the student behavior – and the “actor’s perspective” – that is, the perspective of the student, the person doing the behavior.  As one of my favorite academic researchers – Claude Steele – reports of observer-actor interaction:

As observers, we’re looking at the actor, the person doing the behavior we are trying to explain.  Thus the actor dominates our literal and mental visual field, which make the circumstances to which he is responding less visible to us.  In the resulting picture in our minds, the actor sticks out like a sore thumb and the circumstances to which he is responding are obscured from view.

Jones and Nisbett held that this picture causes bias when we try to explain the actor’s behavior.  We emphasize the things we can see.  We emphasize things about the actor – characteristics, traits, and so on – that seem like plausible explanations for her behavior.  And we deemphasize, as causes of her behavior, the things we can’t see very well, namely, the circumstances to which she is adapting.

So, how do we begin to see the actor’s perspective – whether during high stress term-time or life-event moments like the ones I’ve described above, or in similarly high stakes moments when bullying behaviors of the everyday world impact students cognitive and affective lives in and beyond the classrooms we share with them?

We shift into hearing voices rather than reading behaviors.

Perspective Taking – and Empathy

American psychologist Carl Rogers notes empathy as encompassing capacities to

Close photograph (face) of sculpture titled 'Girl' by Robert Thomas, which stands in Gorsedd Gardens at Cardiff City Hall.

‘Girl’ by Robert Thomas.

perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the as if condition. Thus, it means to sense the hurt or the pleasure of another as he senses it and to perceive the causes thereof as he perceives them, but without ever losing the recognition that it is as if I were hurt or pleased and so forth.

With sympathy, Rogers would note, we can be content to remain in the observer’s perspective: feeling compassion or concern as we interact with students (or colleagues) while hoping for things to be better next term and genuinely wishing for the person in front of us to soon be happier.  Sympathy – like guilt – masks a broader range of emotions.  There’s something else going on, but we don’t ask – hoping they won’t tell.

Funny place to be in as an academic:  We plan for data, collect it, mine and analyse it in doing our hope-to-be-published work. But do we ask after it when we’re interacting with the human subjects who are our students?  Or do we take on the observer’s perspective for our intake of information?

Carol Bly – in her teaching, writing, and teaching about writing – pointedly, loudly and ethically demonstrated how we might engage empathy to gather data that would let us shift to an actor’s perspective.

In offering five basic questions, Bly points out that “Empathic questioning is an exact skill,” with the aim of collecting further data from the speaker.  Rather than engaging in “some sort of high-end sympathy[-motivated]” process that involves head nodding, rule invoking, or saying of “I understand..,” phrases, the move into empathetic questioning prioritizes perspective taking – cognitive empathy – in “deliberately hearing the point of view of the other:  The conversation is not random.  It is intentional.”

The Questions

Intentional, empathic questioning is work, Bly reminds readers before she sets out the five questions – and it is work motivated by respect for hearing another’s voice:

…to ask a child or student or anyone another questions about what that child or student or person has just said reassures him or her that someone is taking a serious interest.  “This adult actually seems to respect what I just said or they wouldn’t be asking a second question!”  (How many Americans have ever been asked a second question about something they just spoke of?  It is so rare.  It is such a civil experience and it is so rare!)

Now, to Bly’s questions – letting any preconceptions or associated fears about acting empathetically float in a for-now silenced thought bubble, out of range of your hearing.

“There might be slight variations, but in both their philosophy and sequence, the five steps above are classical empathy,” Bly notes:

Ballon Street street sign in Manchester, England.

Balloon Street – Manchester.

  1. The first step is the one most often missed:  it is making the decision that you are going to hear.
  2. Emptying yourself (for the moment, since you can always come back to it) of your own point of view or any association of yours that comes to mind as the speaker speaks.
  3. Asking the person who has just spoken some open-ended questions (not yes-or-no questions, not leading questions) about what he or she just said. “What other factors…?”  “How did you come to realize…?”  “Where might you seek resources…?”  “Why have you ruled out…?”  “Who else might be thinking about/working on…?”  “When else have you noticed…?”
  4. Saying back to the person, in your own words, what you have understood the person to have said – and then asking if you have it right, where you have misunderstood it.
  5. Asking this:  Given all the comments made, the feelings or meanings reported, where do we go from here? What does the speaker see as a good direction to take from here? What might some of the speaker’s goals be for now and for the future?

Hearing Voices

Students: Imagine that student who’s come to your office asking for an extension, wanting to address and follow up on an unexpected absence – perhaps one absence too many, or needing to gather some ideas about how to study for the upcoming exam.  With the observer’s perspective the data may well cluster around stress, bad time management, under-developed study skills – to borrow from what I have overheard in hallway conversations last week and thirty-five years ago when I began teaching.

With Bly’s questions we might shift into asking questions that move us into the actor’s perspective, toward gathering data that the actor can draw upon in making next moves and decisions – perhaps with us, perhaps not.  For that student asking for an extension – just a day or so, and you know you’re not going to read all those papers/exams/whatever-you’re-collecting in a single setting – the questions you might ask after listening intentionally to the speaker’s voice in your head could be these: What else are you trying to balance?  What are options you see for moving ahead on the project with or without an extension?  While you’re working to meet the multiple deadlines, might this resource (that as a teacher you could then be calling up on your computer) be helpful to you?

With list item #4 you get to say back to the student the ideas that s/he’s shared with you – a member data check, if you will.  Both teacher and student will have heard the actor’s words/perspective, as well as having experienced shifts in understanding.  And it is from that place that the work of item #5 – Where to we go from here? – can begin.

Teaching: Yeah, it’s also that season of (de)coding Student Ratings of Teaching.  What if we use Bly’s empathy questions to both stop “beating up” ourselves for those few or many stinging comments – and stop belittling our students for “not getting” what we were teaching?  Three things Bly’s questions taught me about actions I could take in (de)coding of evaluation data by thinking through possibilities forming student-actors’ perspectives:

First, I had to hear all the words – and in my students’ voices with all their complex nuances and competing tones.  Second, I took time to look back on all the words of the class, whether the syllabus, the readings, the assignments, or the discussions in order to consider the other factors with an open mind.  Third, I needed to start with a question to undo the curse of knowledge: Would I have made similar comments, faced similar confusions, engaged in similar placement of praise or blame as an undergraduate?  If no, why not?  If yes, who or what helped me eventually to shift my understanding?

Climate: While Bly’s specific list wasn’t in my head the first times I heard one student call another – directly and not in passing – a bitch or a faggot, the University of Iowa doctoral student me was grateful for the experience as Mankato State University masters’ student me for having been around people like – and some who had learned writing from – Bly.  Deciding to hear the students who’d said those words, mindfully bracketing the rage in my own head, and taking a minute to speak with the student directly impacted the comment – then I could turn to the entire class and ask: “Where do we get permission to speak that word as a taunt?”  And, of course, my question at the point would not necessarily be your question.  In fact, I might even preface my question in the face of a “That’s so gay” throw down by saying, “Yes, that is so foolish, corrupt, idiotic, deplorable.” All alternatives pointed out in Alison Rowan’s beautifully gutsy poster response to gay hurled as a pejorative.  But I’d have listened, said a question back, and acted in ways to prompt next new actions among my students – all of us employing empathy.

Bowl-shaped light fixture from 1920s US art deco era.

Home Place – Light above Homework Table


Bly, Carol, ed.  “Appendix: A Sequence of Five Steps in Empathy.” In Changing the Bully Who Rules the World: Reading and Thinking about Ethics.  Minneapolis: Milkweed Press, 1996: 537.  (See also Transitions, Ink blog post from 2007.)

Steele, Claude M.  Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us.  New York: Norton, 2010.

Drawing on empathy as part of teaching:  (1) Marcin Chwistek, MD, Attending Physician, Pain and Palliative Care Program – Tufts University Medical School.  (2) Laboratory on Design Thinking in Education, University of Kentucky, with its “hearing voices” workshop.  (3) Math 220, Calculus I, Dr. Larry Krajewski.  (4) Expository Writing, College of St. Rose, ENG105 Partner Active Listening Exercise.


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