Empowerment Listening

When a parent or caregiver approaches a teacher to deal with their child’s involvement in bullying or inequity, they will most likely be experiencing strong emotions. They may be heartbroken to learn that their child is suffering from another’s cruelty. They may be afraid for their child’s safety. They may be either devastated or outraged that their child has been accused of bullying or harassment. Parents and caregivers often feel helpless and powerless to make things better for their children. They may be angry or upset, believing that more should have been done, or that too much was done, or that something should have been done differently. In some cases, parents or caregivers may direct their anger toward their child. (See also Understanding Parents and Caregivers.)

The teacher’s response is a critical factor in determining how the situation will unfold. The goal of such an interaction is to ensure the student’s wellbeing. To this end, teachers, administrators and school staff can offer support to parents and caregivers in order to enhance their ability to support their children and to work collaboratively with the school. Before any discussion of steps to take or strategies to implement, teachers can seek to fully understand parents’ and caregivers’ perspective, and to ensure that they feel heard and understood.

Empowerment listening is an interactive process during which we provide emotional support to the person we are listening to, in this case parents and caregivers. We validate and normalize their feelings and concerns, we recognize that this is a stressful situation for them and we provide an opportunity for them to express their emotions.

In order to listen with authentic empathy and openness, we will need to be mindful of the personal tools, skills, values and attitudes we have developed for alliance-building with parents and caregivers. (See Alliance-building.) This will assist us in the basic elements of empowerment listening: being fully present, listening very carefully, and providing the parent or caregiver with a respectful and nonjudgmental environment, and thus the space and time to express whatever is needed.

Through empowerment listening, teachers create a connection that is the essence of collaboration and a healthy partnership. When responding to a parent or caregiver who has approached us to discuss a bullying situation, teachers can:

  • Try to stay calm (steady, deep breathing can help).
  • Believe the parent or caregiver. For example, if there are inconsistencies in the parent’s or caregiver’s version of the situation, trust that these will become clear as the story unfolds. Later on, if the inconsistencies remain, you can acknowledge these as part of information sharing and integrate the two perspectives during the problem-solving process.
  • Respect the person’s rhythm of telling the story. (For example: avoid interrogating them by asking a series of questions; tolerate periods of silence if it seems natural and comfortable).
  • Ask open-ended questions as much as possible when you need to seek information; that is, questions which do not require “yes” or “no” as an answer. This way, you can gather more information and gain a fuller understanding of the parent’s or caregiver’s perspective.

Saying it

“How long has this been going on?” will elicit more information than “Has this been going on for a long time?”
Note: It can be a good idea to avoid “Why” questions, which can imply judgment (although this is not an absolute rule.)
“Why didn’t you talk to your child about the bullying?” may insinuate blame, as compared to: “What kinds of things made it difficult for you to raise this problem with your child?”

  • Avoid making assumptions or projecting your own feelings onto the parent or caregiver. Check your understanding of what has been shared with you and how the person is feeling.

Saying it
You can paraphrase what you think you have heard: “So you’re saying that this all started last year, but that it’s gotten worse this year?”

You can also verify the person’s feeling and perception: “It sounds as though you’re feeling pretty scared that this is just not going to end for your child. Have I got that right?”

  • Validate their emotions and express empathy. Once you have confirmed that you understand how the parent or caregiver is feeling, you can let them know that you accept, understand and respect those feelings.

Saying it

“I know this must be very upsetting for you. It’s sad and frightening for any parent/caregiver to find out that their child is being bullied.”

“You seem quite angry that we believe your child has bullied another student. That makes a lot of sense because it’s not easy for any parent/caregiver to hear.”

“I can understand how angry you must feel – and why you’d want to see that student expelled. She/he really hurt your child and it’s so hard for a parent/caregiver to see their child suffer.”

  • Avoid making promises. For example, promising that their child will never experience bullying again, that the student who is doing the bullying will be expelled, that they will be informed of the name of the student who is bullying their child.
  • Make a clear statement that assigns responsibility to the student who is doing the bullying and makes it clear that the bullying is unacceptable.

Saying it

“I’m sure we can agree that there is never any excuse or justification for that kind of behaviour. No one ever deserves to be treated like that.”

  • Affirm and validate the courage it took for the parent or caregiver to come and talk to you, and your willingness, intention and desire to work with them to resolve the situation.

Saying it

“You know, it’s not easy to approach the school and talk about such a difficult situation. It took a lot of courage on your part. I’m really glad you came to talk to me – and I’m hoping we can work closely on this to make it better for your child and all the students who are involved.”

Responding to parents’ and caregivers’ concerns with empowerment listening can have a huge impact on the outcome of an encounter. Teachers, simply by their willingness and ability to be present, to be respectful and to listen without judging, can in many instances gain the trust and collaboration of parents and caregivers.