The power of empathy

By Dr Rachel Lyon, Researcher Development PGR Administrator

A poster reading 'we hear you' in large black block capital print.

This is a post about how one lecturer’s empathetic intervention changed my life, what I learned from her about what makes a good teacher, and how I put those lessons into practice in my role in the Research Culture and Researcher Development Team.

How empathy opened my mind to development

In the second semester of the second year of my undergraduate degree, I took a class in 19th century British Art and Architecture. The lecturer was enthusiastic and full of energy, both for her subject, and for us. It was infectious, and it rubbed off on all of us in the room. Her seminar room felt exciting and generous and full of possibility. But at the time, I didn’t understand how to harness that potentiality. I was still learning how to negotiate my responsibilities, both to myself and to others, and how to navigate decision making – how to make decisions that would be beneficial to me not just in the immediate, but in the long-term. I was, like so many students are, learning how to be an adult.

Throughout all this new learning, actually applying myself to my studies was taking a back seat. It’s not that I wasn’t capable, or that I wasn’t engaged. I absolutely was, and always felt energised by the seminar room, when I made it there. But often, I’d be doing the bare minimum: I wasn’t in class, and If I was, I hadn’t done the reading. I handed in essays in which thinking was taking place, but which weren’t formatted correctly, were barely referenced, and (although I was an art history student) didn’t even contain reference images of artworks.

One week that I did make it to the seminar room, my lecturer asked me to stay behind after class. That half hour meeting absolutely changed the course of my life. The room was quiet, and still dark- the blinds closed, and the lights turned off to enable us to see the images we’d been looking at together in class more clearly. Once everyone else had left, my lecturer closed the door, sat me down, and just said, ‘Are you okay?’

Now, before I went into the seminar room that morning, I would have said I was fine. But in the dim hush of the seminar room, in the quiet space that was being held for me by my lecturer, I found that I wasn’t fine after all. I found that even though there was nothing exactly wrong, holding on to all the moving parts of an adult life on your own is really hard, especially when you don’t yet know what you’re doing.

My lecturer was patient, and non-judgemental, and optimistic. Together we broke down all the things I was failing to keep on top of into discrete little chunks that I could manage: Use a calendar to keep track of where you should be and when. Map out your reading schedule, and follow through so that you never arrive unprepared for classes. How to reference. How to format an essay. Where to find images of artworks and how to insert them into my essays, step by step at the room’s desktop computer.

I felt seen in that room in a way I had not felt before this encounter. My lecturer had noticed I was struggling when I couldn’t even see it myself and had asked me in an open way what that struggle was and how she could help me with it. But even more than the much-needed practical support that she offered me, and the space to be honest about what I was experiencing, what was so life-changing about this encounter was that someone had noticed I was underperforming and had asked me to take responsibility for myself. Someone had asked me to do more for myself than I had been doing, to get out of my own way, and prepare space for myself to be successful. She believed that I could do more, and she challenged me to believe it too.

And so I did. I went to classes. I went to the library. I read. I formatted my essays correctly. I included images of artworks. I believed that I could be better because someone else believed in me. And her belief in me was not benign, or vague, or nebulous. I could act on it. I could become the kind of adult my lecturer believed I could become. I stepped into a more successful version of myself because someone not only believed I could become that version of myself, but made time and space to allow me to believe it myself.

The skills of empathy

I learned from my encounter that a good teacher is observant. A good teacher seeks to understand students’ struggles. A good teacher treats students’ struggles like they are valid and important, because they are. A good teacher realises that a student who is underperforming always deserves the benefit of the doubt: there could be all sorts of reasons why a student is unable to do their best work – that they don’t care, or aren’t engaged, or don’t want to be working at their best, is rarely likely to be the reason.

Someone engaging in empathetic teaching practice is not concerned only with the student’s behaviour, but with the student’s needs. My lecturer took time to understand what I needed, and gave it to me. I needed to be responsible to myself. I needed to be prepared to put in the work for myself. I needed to really believe that I was capable of better. My lecturer gave me that self-belief by opening up the space for me to become better in that seminar room.

I learned from my lecturer that empathy has many faces. Empathy is not always about practicing kindness as ‘niceness’; it can also be about holding space for your students to hold themselves to higher standards.

How I practice empathy with our PGRs

It has become crucial to my own Higher Education teaching practice, and also to my many and varied interactions with our PGRs in the course of my role as PGR Administrator, to always meet them where they are, as an initial starting point, and to engage deeply with their struggles and their successes. But how do I practice this kind of care for others when I usually meet our students only by email?

Let me tell you how I bring empathy into my inbox. As the first point of contact for all UofG PGRs who are trying to manage successfully navigating their degrees alongside all the other aspects of their lives, I commonly receive worried or exasperated emails arriving in the Researcher Development inbox. Matching this level of frustration would perpetuate it, closing down dialogue and invalidating their concerns. Instead, I let them know that I’m listening, that their struggles, worries and frustrations matter. Often, just knowing someone is listening can make all the difference.

I haven’t forgotten the importance of practical support: I share the same kind of tips and tricks that were shared with me, and the relief when people feel more on top of things is sometimes palpable. I commiserate with them when things are tough. I celebrate with them when they have good news. I open my organisational emails with a hopeful greeting, and I let them know their research journey matters to me. Showing empathy, and engaging with the PGR’s needs, even in small ways, opens up conversation, and it helps me get closer to the person behind the student number, to the support they need.

The learning curve that is experienced on beginning a PhD, can be even steeper than for the transition to undergraduate study, and navigating the balance between being taught and doing independent research has to be learned. Navigating complex systems of academic and professional development with no structured and linear pathway to follow, can cause disorientation, fearfulness, and frustration. I work from the understanding that part of helping people to achieve their best is providing the space for them to achieve, through allowing them to understand themselves as people who are capable of extending themselves, reaching for difficult ideas, making creative connections. My lecturer gave me the tools I needed to understand myself as capable, successful and able to achieve at my best: that’s what I want to share with the PGRs I meet by email.

Developing our PGRs is a complex space, and it requires us all to work together to instil in them self-belief, to build their confidence and to allow them to take responsibility for their own intellectual and emotional growth.

2 responses to “The power of empathy”

  1. […] circumstances are unknown to us. We have no idea what they are going through and with this in mind, empathy in our work, and praxis of a ‘pedagogy of care’ become ever so […]


  2. […] to create a welcoming and open space for my students. I want them to succeed of course, but also I want them to reflect, develop and flourish, and so I offer an empathetic space for them. This empathy is fresh, because I am still so close to […]


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