Next week, Year 12 students across Australia will receive their end of year exam results, culminating in a period of excitement for some, and unprecedented anxiety for others.
For the first time, students are forced to consider career paths and university options, with much of this depending on exam scores.
For teachers and principals, this daunting and overwhelming time presents an important question: what approach should educators take when guiding students through this intense time?
Peta Sigley is the co-founder and chief knowledge officer at Springfox, Australia’s leading provider of evidence-based resilience programs for individuals and organisations.
Sigley has a background in psychology and is an expert on the topic of resilience and emotional wellbeing.
In addressing teens dealing with the stress of Year 12, Sigley firmly believes in the difference between ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’ when it comes to providing help and assurance.
According to Sigley, the distinction is not so much regarding sympathy and empathy but more the difference between sympathy, empathy and compassion.
“Empathy is the ability to understand the perspective and emotions of others. This is where I read body language, facial expressions and have curiosity about what the other person is experiencing,” Sigley told The Educator.
“In this space we are trying to understand the perspectives of others, even if we do not agree with them. We are able to acknowledge and resonate with the emotions that someone else is experiencing without wearing the burden of their emotions”.
Using that knowledge, says Sigley, compassion is about “deeply caring for that person, including being willing to have tough and courageous conversation when their behaviour is not congruent with values or purpose”.
“In contrast, sympathy is where we over-care about the other person and feel that we need to agree with them and save them when really all we end up doing is disempowering them and destroy trust and respect,” she said.
Sympathy versus Empathy
Sigley cautions that operating from a place of sympathy may result in disempowering the other person, particularly if speaking with lots of ‘should’ and ‘must’ statements, being very directive with advice.
“Whilst coming from a place of good intention, there is a likelihood of needing to 'fix' the situation or person and this often stifles the individual to assess and choose the option best suited to themselves,” she said.
“There is also a risk of burnout as I take on the troubles and emotions of others. We often find people operating from the space of sympathy lack courage to draw a line in the sand, to call out poor behaviour”.
Sigley said this can be driven by the “need to be liked” and “not wanting to rock the boat”.
“Calling out the behaviour only happens in the space of compassion,” she explained.
Counselling with sympathy stunts growth
When it comes to the impact of counselling students using sympathy rather than empathy, Sigley has some important advice for educators.
“Counselling with sympathy does not allow the student to grow and learn from the adversity,” she said.
“This only happens through compassion where the student is counselled to help themselves to accept the reality of the setback and optimistically find a pathway forward”.
Sigley said that when educators operate from compassion with high skills of empathy “people feel heard and respected”.
“They feel that there is a safe place to express themselves confidentially and without judgment,” she said.
“Empathy requires active listening, appropriate body language and tone of voice as well, as the words being spoken”.
What principals can learn
The importance of this in a school environment is that staff and students understand that the leader operates from a space that has an individual’s best interest at heart, even if it means there is an inability to approve a request, change a policy or decision that does not serve the greater good.
Compassion, when teamed with steadiness, integrity, connection and purpose, results in trust. When schools operate with high levels of trust, we see lower levels of stress.
This enables people to operate well with change and at times set back. Importantly, it enables thriving.