It’s not me, it’s you.

From the Director of English

This reversal of George Costanza’s patented break-up line sums up the premise of this article: that effective communication is not about the “me” in a situation, it’s about understanding and accommodating the “you” by a process of what could be considered strategic or pre-emptive empathy. This is not the Clintonesque, hand-on-heart, “I feel your pain” variety of empathy we get from those on the hustings; rather it is a process of disciplined imagining which enables writers and speakers to communicate effectively with their readers and listeners. This is what subject English seeks to inculcate in the girls, and this article presents the how and why of this approach. [A moment of empathic reflection: the preceding lines were designed for the pragmatists among you who like to know what it is you’re likely to find should you decide to continue reading. This is not my preferred mode of opening, but I thought you might want it. Those of you who like to find your way into an article by way of a story; the next section is for you.]

Dear Reader, I very recently attended a conference in a southern city I will call, with a nod to Jane Austen, —bourne, to protect the identities of those involved. The conference was stimulating and professionally invigorating for eleven of its twelve sessions. Perversely, it is the unrewarding and professionally enervating session I want to share with you.

The presenter, let’s call her Moira, delivered what promised to be fascinating material in a style that might accurately be called enigmatic. The introduction offered no clue as to what we would hear, or how the session would be structured. The monologue proceeded in what seemed to me to be a single, meandering sentence punctuated by ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ in place of the ‘sos’ and ‘by contrasts’ that might have allowed our brains to make sense of it. Pauses, summations, repetition had all, inexplicably, been omitted. Structurally, Moira clearly favoured none. Her uniform toneof voice suggested that no one word or concept in any sentence deserved our special attention. The audio for the video clips was inaudible. Like Macbeth at the feast, our presenter maintained eye contact with a figure none of us could see; her own Banquo hovering somewhere in the middle distance above our heads. The greyscale PowerPoint slides undoubtedly looked metallically chic on a computer screen, but the gunmetal copy on titanium background was utterly illegible when projected. The too-young cartoons failed to elicit a chortle or snigger from even the most juvenile attendee (I can say that with confidence, because that person is usually me).

I turned to my table-mates to ask if it was just me, the English teacher, stuck in oral assessment mode, but they were either exchanging Facebook addresses or poring over their seminar schedules and discussing which sessions they would be going to in the afternoon instead of Moira’s follow-up. I looked for verification to the table right at the front, nearest our speaker, and found that even the swots and conference groupies had gone limp in their chairs. Their usually keen hands sat disappointedly in their laps, not having been thrust excitedly skyward once. On the one hand (my empathic one), I felt their disappointment, on the other, more selfish hand, I could not believe my luck. In a moment of the most exquisite schadenfreude, I realised that while my colleagues had found their nemesis, I had found my Muse. I left half an hour early, deliriously happy that Moira had simultaneously reassured me of the singular importance of pre-emptive empathy, and helped me write at least two paragraphs of my upcoming article on this very topic.

This session had been a “failure to communicate”. Our speaker had something to say, and had said it. It was one-sided, which I guess made it ‘mmunication’, given the stark absence of the ‘co’. Stephen Covey concisely advised everyone to “seek first to understand, then to communicate” (1989, pp.235-60), and all the evidence suggested that Moira had not sought; no deference had been shown to the hundred or so ultimately-somnolent people in the audience. The fact that we had turned up demonstrated that we were interested in what Moira had to say. The issue was that no empathic rigour had been applied to imaginatively sitting in our chairs to evaluate how this what might best be organised and delivered to aid our task of taking it in. Listeners have very specific needs, quite different from those of readers. It is the job of writers and speakers to anticipate these, in the true, dual sense of this word. This principle is fundamental to the way we do English, because learning to assess and accommodate the needs of an audience is integral to successful communication. As a skill, it has obvious educational, career, and social benefits.

This is a skill we refine in English by exposing the girls to the inner lives of characters in fiction and non-fiction texts. Some of these characters, like Atticus Finch, with whom some of our Year 10s will become familiar next term, come right out and tell them to empathise: “If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” (Lee, 1960, p.33) But being told to empathise by a fictional character, even one given cinematic gravitas by Gregory Peck, is not an entirely reliable instructional method. That is why the Boo Radley principle is built into our tasks, from which the girls have no escape. In Year 9, when the girls deliver a speech of their own creation from the perspective of one of Wilde’s characters from The Importance of Being Earnest, this is precisely what they are doing. When the Year 10s write a feature article about the media’s representation of young adults, we ask them to do so not from their insider’s point of view, but from that of an adult journalist. Year 11s have to pitch advertisements in the role of an advertising executive. All of our tasks designate a role and an audience, because adopting the former and accommodating the latter are communicative bedrock.

These tasks invoke two of Daniel Goleman’s levels of empathy: cognitive empathy, or the ability to understand the other person’s point of view, and emotional empathy which he defines as “a sense of rapport, [that] most probably entails the brain’s mirror neuron system, which activates in our own circuits the emotions, movements and intentions we see in the other person” (2009). These empathic skills are being developed beyond school, too. In its second-year Medicine course, the University of California conducted a trial of Point of View Writing, in which “students . . . write from the patient’s emotional and social perspective about his or her illness and its consequences”. The trial suggests that this approach may allow medical students to “develop more first person perspective, empathy, identification of feelings, expression of affect, acknowledgment of the spiritual, and insight” (Shapiro et al., 2006). Studies by Polman and Emich reveal that we are more likely to be creative or innovative in problem-solving if we do it on behalf of someone else than if we do it for ourselves. Their studies appear to relate to Goleman’s cognitive empathy, and according to the authors, provide “valuable information for researchers in social psychology, decision making, marketing and management but also should prove of considerable interest to negotiators, managers, product designers, marketers and advertisers, among many others,” (Hensel, 2011).

What we work on at school are the set-piece empathies of written sentences, paragraphs, and the various longer works they comprise, and of prepared public speaking. Discussing his recent, imaginatively-titled How to Write a Sentence, eminent Professor of Law and Literary Theory, Stanley Fish, reveals that “the last thing he wants to hear [his composition students] do or try to do is express themselves” (The Book Show). A focus on self-expression leads to students writing opaque sentences, jumbled paragraphs, unaffecting stories, and slumbering conference attendees. While self-expression may be cathartic, as a communicative strategy it is hit-and-miss. It is, of course, important to have something to say, but the onus must be on the writer to see things from the perspective of her reader, and to apply the forms that best facilitate the communication of that something intact. If that something is an analysis of a classic novel, as was the case for the seniors in their exam last week, the academic reader needs to be led deliberately and sequentially along a cohesive path that starts with a response to the question, proceeds to a preview, which two in turn serve as parents to a litter of topic sentences, which themselves lead the reader into paragraphs which make a series of points validated by elaboration and evidence. This pattern is worth following because its inherent logic and rigour best conveys the writer’s analysis to the reader. This is what Fish means when he writes that his theology is “you shall tie yourself to forms and the forms shall set you free” (2011, p.33). These proven forms—whether the generic structure of an essay, or the Golden Rule of public speaking—have the empathy pre-installed.

This empathic principle informs the current push in Girls Grammar English classes to “talk the talk”. In the past, too many girls have either ignored the needs of the listener in favour of their own as speakers, or have mistaken the needs of the listener with those of the reader, and have presented read essays rather than delivering authentic spoken communication. Essays follow a reader-friendly logic. Their sentences are dense and more complex, their nouns outnumber the verbs, and they come with the built in safety-net that the reader can always reread if they miss something, whether as a result of their own or the writer’s inattentiveness. Listeners are much needier. They like a rationale for listening. They listen more intently if their speaker builds a rapport with them and looks at them. They need signposts to remind them of what they have just heard, what is being said, and what they are soon to hear. They need concrete subjects and objects doing easily-imaginable things to one another within the confines of fairly short sentences. Lacking the replay function available to readers, they need their speakers to stress the one or two words in each sentence that carry the meaning. While readers make do with the micro-pauses afforded them by punctuation, listeners need the longer silence of deliberate pauses to digest and store what they have heard. When Dale Spender spoke to the girls on Assembly in Term I, she earned the undying gratitude of all the English teachers present by revealing that the first step in preparing her speech had been thinking of the assembled adolescent girls and how she might tailor her message to them. Her speech, from the outset, was about them, not her.

Taking this empathic, problem-solving view of communication serves also to lessen the fear so many of us have of public speaking. Realising that a speech is not so much about the speaking ‘me’ as it is about accommodating the listening ‘you’ is a crucial cognitive and psychological milestone. If we adhere to the communication-as-self-expression model, then fear of an exposed self is entirely valid and understandable. By making the shift to a strategically empathic view, self-exposure and its attendant risk is necessarily reduced, and our energies are focused on the listener’s needs rather than on self-defence. Like the subjects of the Polman and Emich study, we are actually more likely to produce better results by seeing things from the perspective of our audience. Technology has allowed us a new tool in helping the girls to develop this skill. All English oral assessment in Year 10 to 12, and an ever-increasing proportion of Year 8 and 9 tasks are now recorded on digital video and then compressed for storage and portability. All girls are encouraged to load this video onto their USBs to take away. While some of this footage may find its way into 18th or 21st Birthday video embarrassment montages, that is not our only hope. In viewing their own presentations, the girls can engage in a kind of digitally-enabled empathy. By watching their speeches back, they take on the role of their own audience, and get a valuable opportunity to develop this crucial communicative faculty further.

We teach the girls that essay conclusions should extrapolate from the content of their paragraphs to satisfy the reader’s need to situate that content in a larger and more significant context, a big picture. The paragraphs present the ‘what’; the conclusion presents the ‘so what’. So here is the broader significance. In his thought-provoking A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink (2005) notes that information-based tasks, from software development to the preparation of legal briefs and the interpretation of radiology tests, are increasingly being handled by technology or are being done more cheaply by highly-trained and skilled workers in developing economies. Pink contends that those skills which cannot be delivered satisfactorily by video-link or software are deserving of our immediate attention and nurturing. What used to be dismissively labelled “soft skills” he describes as a crucial “new set of aptitudes” (p.39). These aptitudes are precisely those which “have proven impossible for computers to reproduce, and very difficult for faraway workers . . . to match” (p.155). Empathy is one of them. Because many readers also like an answer to the question “what’s in it for me (or the girls)?”, I’ll close with the thought that “empathy is neither a deviation from intelligence nor the single route to it. Sometimes we need detachment; many other times we need attunement. And the people who will thrive will be those who can toggle between the two” (p.168).

Mr S Woods


Covey, S. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Melbourne: Business Library

Fish, S. (2011). How to Write A Sentence: And How to Read One. New York: Harper Collins

Fish, S. (2011). “Interview with Stanley Fish on ABC Radio National The Book Show”. Retrieved 30th March, 2011, from

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence London: Bloomsbury.

Goleman, D. (2009). “Empathy – Whose Got It, Who Does Not?” Retrieved 20th May, 2011, from

Hensel, J. (2011) “More Creative at Helping Strangers” retrieved 20th May, 2011, from

Lee, Harper (1960). To Kill A Mockingbird. London:Heinemann.

Pink, D. (2005). A Whole New Mind: Moving From the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Shapiro, J., Rucker, L., Boker, J., Lie, D. (2006 March). “Point-of-View Writing: A Method for Increasing Medical Students’ Empathy, Identification and Expression of Emotion, and Insight”. In Education for Health, Vol. 19, No. 1, , 96 – 105. Retrieved 20th May, 2011, from

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