Let Empathy Be the Guide

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. -Maya Angelou

I feel closest to my mom when I am in church. It gets me every time–at some point in the service my eyes well with tears as I smile at the heavens, thankful for her. Inevitably, my mind drifts to the months before she died and the health struggle she went through. Okay, full disclosure, tears are starting to form again as I write this. Over the past seven years the pain of losing her has lessened, yet tears spring instantly when I think of the battle she fought at the end of her life.

I almost always think of something else when I think back to that time. That time when I was driving the two hours from Traverse City to Grand Rapids as frequently as possible. When the roller coaster of terminal illness was overwhelming. When my focus had to be first and foremost on being a daughter and all else fell to the wayside. When neglecting my family and my job filled me with guilt. After the funeral was over and we all went home to figure out a new normal, I had a conversation my first day back to work that I will never forget.

I pieced myself together and headed to school, still a little bleary-eyed but excited to be able to give it my all again. On that first day back, I had a conversation about the guilt I had been feeling because I was neglecting my family. I said that I was eager to be able to start contributing to their lives in the way they deserved. Then, this person told me that I had also been neglecting my job as a principal. That my colleagues had been doing every evening event during the days I had been watching my mom die and helping my dad make funeral arrangements. I left that conversation feeling like I needed to do every evening event for the remainder of the school year. Which, in a K-12 school of 1300 students, there were many.

My level of guilt was off the charts as I walked away. Guilt for leaning on my colleagues, guilt for the lack of presence at home, and guilt as I eyeballed the next few months, knowing that there would be many more nights away from my family.

I was also hurt. Hurt because I anticipated empathy. Hurt because I thought my colleagues were pitching in to help me in my time of need, not tallying up favors. I don’t remember the exact words used during that conversation, but I definitely remember how I felt. So much so that every time I think of my mom’s last few months, I also think of that exchange.

In reality, the conversation may have been filled with kind words. My colleagues definitely had shown support when sudden health crises resulted in me dropping everything and driving two hours away, sometimes in the middle of the school day. They were sympathetic when there were days I wasn’t thinking straight because I was distracted. But, fair or unfair, I don’t remember those conversations nearly as vividly as I remember this one.

People don’t remember what you said, they remember how your words made them feel. And when you say something that hurts them to the core, that adds to their already heavy burden, they may never forget how they felt during the conversation.

Don’t cry for me, Argentina. Many of us have been through devastating losses and challenging periods in our lives. As a leader, I am thankful for that conversation seven years ago. It taught me that empathy has to ALWAYS lead the way.  It taught me to figure out the best timing and words to use when having difficult conversations so that empathy can lead the way. I wonder how the conversation might have felt if the timing had been different, like if it took place after I had been back to school for a week or so? I am not perfect and certainly make mistakes, but I never want to a staff member to think back on the most difficult time in their lives and remember how I made it even harder for them.

My colleague was probably right, I should have done all the evening events for the remainder of the year to make up for the time I missed. But I cannot imagine that my colleague ever anticipated that the words would hurt me so bad during an already difficult time or would’ve wanted me to remember the conversation with strong emotions seven years later. Words and timing can make all the difference. Let empathy be the guide.





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