Building Empathy: Lessons from the Heroically Thwarted Georgia School Shooting

In my most recent post on how to build emotional intelligence for musicians and arts leaders, I focused on how to develop empathy and 5 other strategies for social awareness.

Empathy is particularly effective in creating a social bond because it enables you to understand what someone else is going through and see the other person as a fellow human being.  This is a skill that can go a long way to taking the sting out of a difficult situation and frame the appropriate response.

With these words on my mind, I was drawn to the heroic story of the bookkeeper in the school outside Atlanta, Georgia who was able to talk down a gunman armed with an AK 47-style rifle and nearly 500 rounds of ammunition and help prevent another tragic school shooting by using incredible stores of empathy. This story is captured in the tape of the 911 call that she made to the police:

How did she manage to convince the gun-toting Michael Hill, a young man with a history of mental illness, to follow her directives and put down his weapons, lie down on the floor and to surrender to police?

By tapping into huge stores of empathy and inner strength, carefully listening to him and seeing him as a fellow human being.

As we can hear in the 911 tape of the episode, the bookkeeper, aptly named Antoinette Tuff, closely listened to what the gunman was saying and clearly heard how troubled he was. He was able to open up to her about how he was off his medications, that he felt that life was over for him and that he was ready to die. She shared how she too had had her troubles, with her husband of 33 years who just left her and raising a multiply disabled son.  She further related that she too had thought about killing herself but she decided to live.

Ms. Tuff shows incredible compassion by telling the gunman, “We’re not going to hate you.” (9:20) and

 “I love you and I’m proud of you.  We all go through something in life.” (10:33).

She also helps to create identification by calling him “Baby” and told him that she too is named Hill on her mother’s side (not true, but so what?).

In a post-incident interview, she reveals that she was able to see him as a “hurting young man” and she was able to pray for him.

May none of us ever have to face such a dire situation.  But we can certainly take away some valuable lessons from this encounter:

  • Listen
  • Show compassion
  • Call the person by name
  • Share from your personal experience

So the next time you find yourself in a situation with a difficult person, take a page from Ms. Tuff and see how empathizing with the other person can help you to frame a response that will take the sting out of the challenge.  This will go a long way into building your EQ and laying the ground for the fourth EQ skill: relationship management, the subject of my next post. Stay tuned!