I’ve written before about how we might train law students to defuse tense situations in order to improve our ability to hear each other. Last night, as I was listening to our school’s monthly Town Hall meeting, it occurred to me that we are quite good at getting students to express themselves clearly. What we’re not yet good at is helping them acquire the instinct to empathize before they communicate.

I heard some of them assume, without checking to see if their assumptions were correct, that our dean could make a decision about whether to have an in-person graduation ceremony without running through the hoops of the university’s central administration, the city, and the state, given our pandemic. (Deans are middle-management at universities, but for many law students, they’re the top of the pyramid.) And, in the middle of the meeting, I heard students talking about the stress of being distracted in Zoom-classes by the chat function or by too many emails burdening their inboxes.

These are real stresses, and our students are at their breaking point at this stage of the pandemic. What I would like to learn how to convey to them, though, is that everybody else on that call was at a breaking point, too. Just as students have caregiver responsibilities that keep them from being able to focus entirely on their studies, so do the faculty and staff members. They’re also stressed to the max, though they’re trying to mask their stress so that they can focus on the well-being of the students. I am at a loss as to how to convey to students that thinking in advance about how listeners might react to the way that they phrase their legitimate concerns will help them to communicate more effectively. Lawyers have to think empathetically when they negotiate and when they appear before adjudicators. “Know your judge” isn’t an empty mantra. But I have no idea how to convey to people who are in distress that they are also talking to people who are in distress, and I would love some suggestions. One of the comments last night was both hurtful and embarrassing to me personally, though I truly doubt that the anonymous student who made the comment intended that result. That’s the point: we’re encouraging students to tell us what they’re experiencing so that we can find ways to help them, but we have not yet found good ways to remind them that they are talking to people who are experiencing many of the same stressors that they are. Empathy might be innate, but perhaps it can be a learned skill, too. How do we help our students remember empathy?

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