Teaching and Parenting with Empathy
by Ashley Mowrey
Confession: I used to be such an “at least”er and “silver lining”er. Primarily with my dance students. Especially at competitions and conventions
At least you placed in the top ten.
Chin up, this is happening for a reason.
It could be so much worse.
At least you have the opportunity to be here and learn from this.
If you’re thinking, “Well, what’s the problem with saying that? Sounds good to me!”, I hear you. I thought I was being honest and helpful. I thought I was encouraging my students to look on the bright side and stay optimistic.
But the problem was, I wasn’t accepting their feelings. I wasn’t validating their experience or giving them the space to process. I was trying to avoid negativity and hurry them along to positivity. I was trying to fix it. And in doing so, I was hurting our relationship by ignoring what they were going through, which in turn hurt their training and trust in me.
Instead, I now know what they really needed in those moments…
Psychology Today defines empathy as, “the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person.” Through her 1996 study, nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman identified four attributes of empathy:
Perspective taking or seeing it as the other person sees it.
Understanding the person’s feelings
Communicating that understanding (Wiseman, 1996, p. 1165).
Check out this great video from Brené Brown for a quick explanation of empathy and why it’s important. This would be great to share with your dancers too!
So let’s break this down with my above examples:
“At least you placed in the top 10. Chin up, this is happening for a reason”.
I wasn’t seeing it from my dancer’s point of view. I was seeing it from mine. I was coming from an understanding of the big picture and knew that in the long run, this experience wouldn’t define their dance career. Helping dancers broaden their focus and gain objectivity about the path of their dance training is so important. But it’s not what they need in the moments of disappointments and missteps. Those teaching moments come later, after the dancer has calmed down and processed the experience more. In the moment, they need someone to connect with how they’re feeling.
To shift into their perspective, I could think back to when I was a young dancer. How did it feel to be disappointed? How did I react when I felt my entire world was affected by my mistakes? You don’t necessarily have to share this with your dancer unless it feels helpful. But this can help you get into their mindset and emotions.
I’ll be honest...I was judging my student. I was thinking, “Ugh, this isn’t that big of a deal. Why are they acting like this?” I was irritated it had to be “a thing”. I was coming into the situation with a whole lot of my own emotional baggage and opinions on how they should be reacting. Instead, I could have checked my judgments and accepted where they were at that moment.
Understanding the person’s feelings:
As teachers and parents, it can be difficult to understand our dancer’s feelings. I’ve definitely had thoughts like, “Why is she so upset about this?” and “He shouldn’t be acting out this way”. To understand their feelings, we don’t have to agree with them. Or fix them. We just have to recognize what they’re feeling...all feelings are okay here. If the dancer seems open to it, ask questions for clarification. “How are you feeling right now?” and “What are you telling yourself right now?” are two great openers. If the dancer is too emotional or shut down to talk, this can be approached later, even back at the studio. Something to remember here: in order for our dancers to share, they need to feel safe that all of their feelings and experiences will be validated and met with compassion.
Communicating that understanding:
This can look like, “I see you’re feeling sad and disappointed. I’m here for you.”, or “This is really hard and it’s okay for you to be disappointed.” They need to hear that you understand and are there for them.
A question I get often is, “Okay, I get it, but what if they’re being dramatic, acting out, or being irritable?”. I get it. It’s super frustrating when you want to be there for your dancer but their actions aren’t in alignment with your studio’s values. My take is this: Try out this guideline for an empathetic response and notice if it helps the behaviors. Often, just our validation and empathy can be enough to help steer the dancer back towards desired behaviors.
If not, you can calmly and compassionately communicate your boundaries for your dancers. In this conversation, make it about the behavior, not the feelings or person. This could sound like, “I see you’re really upset about your placement. It’s totally okay to have those feelings. It’s not okay to storm off and be rude to your teammates. What are some things that help when you’re feeling sad and irritable?” If they need ideas, suggest some coping skills such as splashing water on their face, crying in a safe and quiet place, a hug, or talking it out. The goal here is to support them through this experience and teach them the tools to cope. But they won’t hear us if we don’t start with empathy.
Empathy is a skill and can take practice. It’s totally okay if these responses take some time and intentionality. To deepen your empathetic responses, it can help to put pen to paper and explore (with lots of non judgement and self-compassion) past situations where you did and didn’t respond with empathy.
Here are a few questions to get you started:
When has empathy felt natural? How did I respond?
When has empathy felt difficult? How did I respond? How could I have responded differently?
What situations trigger an apathetic or insensitive response from me?
How do I want to show my dancers empathy next time?
You’ve got this! And I’m here to support you however you need. If you’re interested in my work, head to my website. You can also find me on Instagram for more free tools, resources, and inspiration.
Wiseman, Theresa. (1996). A concept analysis of empathy. Journal of Advanced Nursing. 23. 1162 - 1167. 10.1046/j.1365-2648.1996.12213.x.
Ashley Mowrey is a Mindset Coach and Educator for dancers. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from The University of Arkansas, is a Certified Professional Coach and Whole Person Certified Coach through Coach Training World, a trained facilitator in Tara Mohr’s Playing Big Leadership Program for Women, a specialist for Doctors for Dancers, and a blog contributor for Apolla Performance. Ashley has recently joined the faculty for the upcoming Embody Dance Conference, coming Summer 2021 in Connecticut where she will lead workshops for all ages, including parents and teachers, on mindset tools. She is also a Team Member of Dancer, 360 and is a contributor to their upcoming book. Ashley trained as a competitive dancer out of Dallas, TX before teaching and eventually directing a company and dance studio in Fayetteville, AR. It was during those years that she felt drawn towards the dancer’s mindset and the need for training and tools in the dance community to foster mental health and wellbeing. She sees clients in person and via Skype/Zoom all over the country as well as travels (mostly digitally these days) to studios for customized group workshops. Ashley has also been featured on Dance Studio Amplified Podcast, (Ep. 14), Dance Boss University Mastermind guest presenter, and episode 58 of Dance Boss Podcast. Head to her website for more information, or her Instagram for free tools and resources to help you build a healthy mindset to navigate the dance world at your best.