32 Degrees: Embrace Empathy to Connect with Students

In this article, that appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of 32 Degrees, PSIA Alpine Team member Robin Barnes shares how establishing a connection with your student is a critical component of every lesson you teach. For other great stories read the full issue online.

One of the things I’ve always loved about PSIA-AASI’s approach to snowsports instruction is how student-centered it is… but my understanding of what that entails has evolved. I used to think it meant that I should tailor what I do to accommodate the student(s) in front of me. Now I understand it’s about allowing my student to guide me and have an active part in decision making, so that – together – we can create a kick-butt learning experience for them.

I could leave this sentiment right here and just ask you to reflect on it, but this article is about enhancing the learning partnership through empathy, so let’s dig in.

Empathy plays a key role in creating student-centered environments. It has, along with emotional intelligence, become a robust talking point in sports and business. According to Talentsmart.com, in 2020 emotional intelligence made the list of top 10 job skills on a World Economic Forum report, the top 5 on a LinkedIn skills report, and the top 4 training priorities on Udemy’s Workplace Learning Trends. Along with self- and social awareness and management, empathy is getting some well-deserved time in the spotlight and, as a learnable skill, stands to make us better in our jobs as educators.

So, what is empathy? Basically, it’s putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to better understand them. It’s a way of connecting with other people in a way that shows you understand they’re experiencing something meaningful. It’s being able to say, “I want to understand how this feels to you and let you know that you’re not alone.”

According to researcher and author Brene Brown, empathetic statements do not start with the words “at least.” For example, “At least you didn’t put a core shot in both skis.” “At least you only tore your ACL and didn’t injure more body parts.” “At least your roommate doesn’t have wild parties every night.” In these examples, an honest attempt is made to put a positive spin on a situation, but what the person may really need is simply for someone to listen and understand them. To connect with them and their emotions.

I remember at the tryouts for the 2016-20 PSIA-AASI National Team, I was unhappy with my skiing performance from the very first day. I made mistakes in preparations that morning that wreaked havoc with me all day (didn’t eat much, gave my snacks to a buddy, wore goggles that caused my contacts to flutter on my eyeball). I should’ve known better, which only added to my frustration. Nonetheless, I made the first cut and moved on to the next rounds of the selection process. I told a friend that I was upset about my skiing, and he said, “At least you know that on one of your worst days, your skiing is still good enough.” I knew, and still know, that his comment was meant to make me feel better and to soothe my emotions. However, I wanted to scream “BUT I DID NOT SKI TO MY POTENTIAL! I LET MYSELF DOWN! I MADE ROOKIE MISTAKES!” I didn’t understand at the time why his comment didn’t help and even made me feel worse. Now, I understand that I didn’t want to be “at leasted” and gloss over what was frustrating me. I wanted to be understood.

In hindsight, perhaps what I needed to hear – and what I keep in mind when a student voices similar disappointment with their skiing – is “I understand you’re frustrated. I’m here for you and we can chat about it if you like.”

Empathy is a powerful tool that can help us better understand what’s driving our students’ behavior and find the best strategies to help them achieve their goals. It can also help us work through challenges together. For example, if my student suddenly panics on a hill that he has skied well before, I can tap into a time when I felt panic. For me it would be seeing a spider in my house, which brings on absolute terror. I understand that my panic at that time may be irrational to some, but it’s real to me. I can listen to my student express fear or panic, put myself in his shoes, and work together in order to move forward.

To better understand empathy and empathizing, let’s go over its four parts.

Gain Perspective

You teach snowsports now, but there was a time when you – like your students – were just starting out on skis or a snowboard. To understand your student’s perspective, think back to similar learning experiences you’ve had. Try to put yourself in their place.

For example, when a first-time snowboarder shows up for a lesson and looks nervous and insecure, think about a time when you’ve felt nervous and insecure. Even if your experience doesn’t relate to snowsports, it can inform how you manage initial interaction with that student. Rather than applying big energy and a fast pace, maybe use a gentler approach, asking your student how they’re feeling, acknowledging this is their first time a board, etc.

Put Aside Judgment

It’s their experience. Your job is to understand it, not to judge it. Let’s say your student gets nervous whenever you lead her close to the edge of the run. You know there is no steep drop-off or impending danger over the edge. However, it’s not your job to judge her fear. You must understand that it makes her nervous and strategize to minimize the fear.

That might mean choosing another place on the hill to ski or stopping at the edge so your student can see there is no drop-off. If she says that it no longer rattles her nerves, you’ve worked together to problem-solve.

Understand Another’s Feelings

Understanding doesn’t equal agreement. I try to understand my students’ feelings even if I don’t agree with them. I may need to tap into my memory bank for a time when I felt similarly about something. Our political climate today is all about this. We can work to understand how and what someone with different beliefs is feeling without necessarily being in lock-step agreement.

Communicate Understanding

Communication is key: “I hear you.” “I can see that you’re upset…, challenged…, excited.” “Let’s work this out together” or “Let’s enjoy this stoke together.” To make a strong connection, it’s important that you verbally affirm that you understand the other person’s emotions. That helps you develop trust, and, as in my earlier example from my tryout experience, can serve to validate the emotions the other person is experiencing.

If, by now, you’re thinking empathy must be part of the Learning Connection people-skill fundamentals for developing trust and emotional intelligence, you’re absolutely correct. Empathy is one of the building blocks to connecting with students and creating a trusting relationship. It is the essence of a student-centered learning environment.

Lastly, consider the following quote from a video on empathy that the Cleveland Clinic produced to train staff:

If you could stand in someone’s shoes.
If you could hear what they hear.
See what they see.
Feel what they feel.

What a wonderful question to ask ourselves periodically throughout our lessons!