May 25, 2021

Empathy key to effective classroom communication, says Bigbie

Author: Kara Smith
Source:  NYSUT Communications
operationalizing peace
Caption: Two former students, Trevon Germany (top left) and Tevon Patterson (bottom left), join the webinar to offer high praise for the strategies of nonviolent communications expert Cindy Bigbie (right). “It’s mostly about empathy for me,” said Germany. “When you sit down and feel like someone is consciously listening to you it hits home differently.”

As far as Cindy Bigbie is concerned, American schools don’t have a behavior problem; they have a communication problem.

“After a lifetime of traumatic experiences, two-thirds of Americans respond to perceived threats by fighting, flighting or freezing, even when there’s no actual threat,” said Bigbie, founder of “The Bigbie Method” a conflict resolution process based on nonviolent communication techniques and restorative practices.

Connection — being seen, heard and valued without judgment — is key to interrupting the cycle of trauma in classrooms and bringing about better understanding and peace. Bigbie detailed her theories in “Operationalizing Peace in America’s Schools,” the latest chapter in NYSUT’s Many Threads, One Fabric series exploring social justice issues.

Moderated by J. Philippe Abraham, NYSUT secretary-treasurer — who opened the event with a moment of silence for George Floyd on the anniversary of his murder — the late May event shared strategies to help educators foster better classroom communication. “As educators, we are committed to helping our students in every way that we can,” said Abraham. “I’m excited to have Dr. Bigbie with us to help members learn how to better connect and communicate with their students.”

Andy Pallotta, NYSUT president, thanked Abraham for his ongoing commitment to raising awareness about social justice issues. “We have gone through so much over the past year as educators,” he said. “Thanks for helping us learn new strategies to face our challenges and bring people together.”

Trauma, on the part of both educators and students, is the root of most communication breakdowns, explained Bigbie. To move beyond it, and the fight, flight or freeze cycle, we must connect through empathy. “Empathy has three components: really listening to what people say, reflecting back what you hear, and needs guessing — looking past their words and trying to guess what their true underlying need is,” explained Bigbie. “Conflict is nothing more than an unmet need.”

Instead of empathizing and listening, most people fall back on tactics like blaming, minimizing, giving advice or agreeing when others share with them. “Often these strategies foster more disconnection because listeners make it about themselves instead of the other person,” she said. “It’s ok to offer advice but there’s a place for it, you need to ask.”

Two former students of Bigbie offered high praise for the strategies. “I was in trouble in school because of the way adults handled me,” said Tevon Patterson. “When people say things that make you feel like you’re a menace, then you might as well play that role.”

“It’s mostly about empathy for me,” said Trevon Germany. “When you sit down and feel like someone is consciously listening to you it hits home differently.”

Bigbie, who holds a doctorate in instructional design, is a nonviolent communications practitioner, trainer and speaker with years of experience working with incarcerated youth. She champions restorative practices and, in 2019, won the Dennis Maloney Award for Youth-Based Community and Restorative Justice Programs.

To learn more about her work, visit