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There was a hardworking schoolboy who took every little test as seriously as possible and aimed always for perfection. In one English quiz, though, he accidentally left out a sentence while writing down a passage he spent so much effort memorizing. That cost him a full 60 points, which was a heavy blow to him.
‘What’s the point of all the work if this is what you get in return?’ asked a voice in his head. It was the moment he made up his mind not to work hard for school again.
We have all been this child. At some point as we grow up, we find ourselves in a similar position, frustrated and hurt. This is where we start coming up with mental strategies to spare ourselves the pain of failure, and this is when we start losing the confidence and motivation to learn, especially if our teacher fails to get to the bottom of it and blames it all on our laziness.
But not if our teacher was Matthew Kwok. ‘It took a mere 10 minutes to let the boy know failing one dictation is not the end of the world, neither does it mean hard work is not rewarded. All it takes is a chat to help students recognize the facts, identify their emotions and needs, and pull them out of the downward spiral of self-doubt.’
The year was 2017 when Matthew and Raymond Yang graduated from CUHK with a degree in law and in government and public administration, respectively. Through the Teach for Hong Kong programme, they became deputy class teachers at a primary school. There they realized it is not academic drills that primary school pupils in Hong Kong need the most but an improvement in their emotional quotients. Having a good emotional quotient is not the same as being docile or never throwing tantrums: it is being able to accept and express your feelings while getting along with others.
It was not long until the two met Anthony Ngai, a fellow CUHK graduate from the Quantitative Finance Programme. Combining their expertise and passion for emotional education, the three of them founded a social enterprise called Just Feel and partnered with primary schools to promote compassionate communication. They focus on primary schools because of the importance of early intervention when it comes to mental issues.
‘According to a 2015 white paper on mental health policy penned by the UK government, 50% of the psychological issues experienced by adults began before the age of 15 and 75% before 18, turning ultimately into full-blown disasters. Realizing that the health issues in society can be prevented at school, the UK officially made social-emotional learning a compulsory subject. We hope we can do the same in Hong Kong.’
Formally known as ‘nonviolent communication’, compassionate communication was developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. The American psychologist noted that in most cases communication is conducted in a ‘violent’ way, where judgements supplant facts and the blame game is the only game in town. Slurs are hurled at one another, and all one has to say about others is how useless and idiotic they are. Rosenberg believes that behind every action is a need waiting to be fulfilled. If we change the way we talk and listen, we can see what those needs are and start empathizing with others—and come to mutual understanding and harmony.
There was a boy disliked by his classmates for being a spoilsport. Practising compassionate communication, his teacher brought a pack of cards representing different emotions and needs. He asked the boy to pick the ones that best describe his feelings when seeing others have fun. The boy chose ‘loneliness’ and ‘jealousy’.
‘Why do you think this is?’ the teacher asked the class. Putting themselves in his shoes, they figured out the boy had just been trying to get everyone’s attention with his antics and make friends. They went up to him after class, comforting and accepting him as the buddy he had longed to be.
Compassionate communication comes in four steps, the first of which is to observe and report. Avoid judgements and opt for statements like ‘You look tired today. Have you been getting enough sleep?’ The next step is to get your feelings across. Say ‘I am scared by your loud voice’ if this is how you feel. The third step is to spell out your needs, and finally, make clear how you would like them to be addressed.
It puts us in a vulnerable position and thus takes great courage to talk about our emotions. ‘Our organization’s name in Chinese sounds the same as the Chinese term of “dare to speak”,’ Anthony said. ‘It is an act of bravery to speak of your true feelings in spite of embarrassment and mockery.’
And daring to reveal one’s vulnerability is the only way to elevate a relationship. Using compassionate communication, Matthew noted, teachers will have more success earning their students’ trust and guiding them than if they simply reward or penalize them. Meanwhile, students capable of expressing themselves and accepting others will have stronger bonds with their peers and a greater sense of belonging to their communities.
Beyond the classroom, even an ostensibly quarrel-free workplace is not necessarily free of frictions and hard feelings. ‘People keep asking me if compassionate communication means there’s no need for arguments anymore. That’s certainly not true. The point of arguing, however, is not to hurt. It is to understand what others and we ourselves need and to work out ways of meeting those needs,’ Raymond said.
‘Connections are fostered not by bottling up emotions but by consciously and skilfully communicating them. It is always more effective to address the mood before solving the problem itself.’
The three co-founders traced their endeavours in emotional education to their days at CUHK. Matthew is grateful for the freedom at the University, which allowed him to see that his true passion lies in education instead of law. Affiliated with New Asia College, Raymond remembers his time in the College and how the education outside the classroom sent him in search of a greater purpose in life. Looking back at Just Feel’s bumpy start, Anthony thanked his alma mater for having generously provided resources, network and advice.
Emotions are part of human nature. They give us information about what we are experiencing and help us know how to react. Rather than keeping pain and sorrow out, we should embrace them as part of the human experience, and grow from them. We should be comfortable with being ourselves, and let others be themselves. As soon as we settle down, things will settle down.
Reported by Christine N.
This article was originally published on CUHK Homepage in Jun 2020.