Using Empathy, Genuine and Unconditional Positive Regard to Build Safety for Discussing Difficult Topics in the Online Classroom

Concurrent Session 5
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Brief Abstract

We propose a new theoretical model using Carl Rogers conditions for relationship. Using empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard to facilitate meaningful life-changing dialogue in the online teaching environment where difficult dialogue regarding social justice issues involving race, class, gender, sexuality, ableism, and other non-hegemonic identities occurs.Yet, Tausch and Huls (2014) found that 60% of university students believed they received no empathy from their professors. Similarly, Rogers, Lyons, and Tausch (2014) found that student feelings or emotions are rarely addressed in the classroom.






Denise K. Sommers, EdD, LCPC is an Associate Professor at the University of Illinois in Springfield, IL where she teaches the online Social Services Administration concentration in the Human Services Department. Dr. Sommers has accrued over 25 years of rehabilitation counseling and evaluation, management, and supervisory experience in the human services arena. She obtained her bachelors’ degree in Human Growth and Development from the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign; her master’s degree in Rehabilitation at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina; and her doctorate of education degree in Counseling from the University of Missouri in St. Louis. Her research focuses on the use of service learning in online classes; multiculturalism, social justice and service learning; competencies in Human Services training; leadership in Human Services; and the use of empathy, genuineness and high regard to enhance engagement and success in online teaching and learning.

Extended Abstract


Expectations for candidates studying to be working professionals in the fields of education and human services include: compassion and empathy for their students/clients, a sense of caring, and, most importantly, a commitment to social justice. The latter is the underpinning sentiment of the desire to correct social ills, in the interest of the public good.We acknowledge the importance for educators and human service professionals to recognize critical social justice issues involving race, class, gender, sexuality, ableism, and other non-hegemonic identities, as well as to understand intersectionality, and, we ask, “how can we best deliver said ‘unsafe content’ in online environments?” 

In order to successfully accomplish these goals, we examine content and pedagogy. Our online content involves dismantling stereotypes through the use of counter-story, and our pedagogy is based upon the work of Carl Rogers. We ultimately propose a new theoretical model based upon the work of Rogers who uses empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard to facilitate meaningful life-changing dialogue in classrooms. We then apply this model to online teaching environments, and examine its effectiveness.

Background Literature

Lai and colleagues (2014) found that high engagement with counter-stereotypical counter-stories can be effective in reducing implicit biases, which is key in understanding and embracing diversity. Direct participant engagement with counter-stories that intentionally dismantle stereotypes can impact how messages are processed, thus reducing implicit biases. In this presentation, we address how this research can be extended to online environments. We propose a theoretical model to create safety for the depth of dialogue required to reduce student biases. In this presentation, we address how this research can be extended to online environments. 

Ultimately, the professor creates the socio-psychological aspects of the classroom environment, selecting the topics that initiate and facilitate dialogue. However, in order for students to be willing to look deep within themselves, the classroom environment must feel safe—where students feel free to disclose deeply held beliefs that reinforce biases. We propose a theoretical model to create safety for the depth of dialogue required to reduce student biases. 

We define Critical Social Justice (CSJ) as actively engaging the classroom as a site for social change. We desire to prepare our students to do the same in their future classrooms or working environments. Our theoretical model, based upon the work of Carl Rogers, utilizes various methods and professor behaviors that ultimately lead to a transformative relationship between the student and “the other.”

Theoretical Framework

Rogers theorized that the relationship between the professor and the student consists of the professor’s proficiency in three interactive components, to convey: empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard. As the professor becomes consistent in conveying these three interactive components, trust and safety is established, and, students can then authentically discuss their biases and fears of “the other.” We argue that the utilization of Rogers’s model in online environments will minimize the transactional distance between professor and student, and thus move students to be more open to “unsafe content”: ultimately minimizing their potential resistance and alienation, and increasing their empathy for those different from them. 

Bockmier-Sommers, Chen, and Martsch (2017) found that professors possessing Rogers’ three conditions (empathy, genuineness, and high regard) increased student engagement. Although Rogers did not theorize for online learning per se, we apply his theories to unique, intentionally created online learning environments with social justice foci. The open dialogue that professors can create helps students realize the injustices of racism, homophobia, ageism, sexism, and ableism. Students also have the potential to see systemic and institutionalized “isms,” which is crucial to critical social justice practice.

Rogers (1969) and Rogers, Lyon and Tausch (2014) maintained that learning is facilitated when the professor uses empathy, high regard, and genuineness to help the student(s) feel safe, trusted, creative, and knowledgeable. As the professor models and uses empathy, genuineness, and high regard in their interactions, students feel emotional safety, freedom, engagement, and curiosity, which become the pillars of support needed to move to a deeper level of learning (Rogers, Lyon, & Tausch, 2014). 



Figure 1: Building a Path toward Social Justice: A Theoretical Model

After exposing student to our theoretical model, and with facilitative exercises utilizing counter-stories, students felt safe to disclose and then to re-examine their biases. We saw significant growth within our students. Here are some examples from our preliminary findings:

Beginning of semester: “White privilege was never an interesting topic for me. It is difficult for me to write a paper on a subject I am not interested in.”  

End of semester: “I feel that I struggled due to my lack of experience with diversity. Living in a rural area there are not usually a lot of opportunity for multiculturalism. I really have started to think about diversity on a daily basis and it really has changed the way I think of things. It has opened my eyes to diversity and how diversity comes into play within this profession.”

The above quotations represents students growth over time.

We will be sharing additional qualitative data during the presentation.

The key to building empathy for “the other” within students, particularly in online learning environments, is tocreate counter-narratives or counter-stereotypes of “the other.” Using fiction and case studies are effective ways for students to identify with characters who are different from them. Through the cases we selected and implemented, our participants could overwhelmingly both relate to the characters presented, often different from themselves, and communicate a sense of empathy for these counter-stereotypical characters. Although this is a preliminary study, we feel that case study pedagogy utilizing counter-story is an effective way of increasing empathy and reducing implicit bias for counter-stereotypical characters. In the presentation, we will elaborate on how to utilize case study pedagogy.


Lai, C. K., Marini, M., Lehr, S. A., Cerruti, C., Shin, J. L., Joy-Gaba, … Nosek, B. A. (2014). Reducing implicit racial preferences: I. A comparative investigation of 17    

             interventions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 1765-1785. 

Rogers, C. R. (1983). Freedom to learn for the 80s. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill 

            Publishing Company.

Rogers, C. R., Lyon, H. C., and Tausch, R. (2014). On becoming an effective teacher: 

           Person-centered teaching, psychology, philosophy, and dialogues with Carl R. Rogers and Harold C. Lyon, Jr. New York, NY: Routledge.