“Empathy” – that magic word that means so much. It’s not feeling sorry for someone – that’s called “sympathy”. Empathy is understanding and sharing the feelings of others – tuning into their emotions and trying to put ourselves in their place.
Let’s say that someone loses a job and talks about feeling sad and anxious. A sympathetic response would be something like “Oh, I feel so bad for you” while an empathetic one would be something like “This is really difficult for you” or “You’re overwhelmed. Tell me more.”
Showing empathy is one of the most important things we can do to support someone. It’s not a script, it’s an approach, so here are 5 straightforward tips for showing empathy:
Often we have opportunities to support people with empathy if we just open the door. Think about it – someone says “I had a terrible day” or “I’m so mad I could just scream!” We may be inclined to say “Just forget about it” or “Chill out”, but that is not empathy.
Be curious and ask. “What’s happening?” or “Tell me more” can start conversations that others may really want and need to have. It can be tough to say “I’m really struggling and need to talk”, so they may say something less specific and hope we’ll take the hint to ask about it. Don’t push if they aren’t up to talking about it or only want to share so much. You’ve shown empathy by even asking and sent the message that you’re open to talking now or in the future.
We’re all busy, and when we’re in a conversation with someone, we may be focusing on all the other stuff we have to do. In order to fully listen and show empathy, we need to be present and dedicate the time to listening.
Sometimes, life gets in the way, though. We have a meeting we have to be at or our kids need to be put to bed. At these times, we can be honest and set another time to talk. Something like, “I really want to hear more. I have an appointment to get to, but how about we grab a coffee in an hour and talk more?” will show that you care and are prepared to give the time to be there. It’s better than trying to listen when we’re clearly distracted and sending the message that we’re not really interested.
That’s it. Listen. Don’t focus on how you’re going to solve others’ problems, don’t think about reassuring them, and don’t come up with some kind of personal story to share. Just take in and reflect on what they are saying. The conversation is about them – not you.
Something I heard long ago that I’ve always remembered is that if you rearrange the letters in “listen” you get “silent” – coincidence or meaningful message? We don’t need to fix anything to be helpful – just listening goes a long way.
When others are sharing a story with us, we often focus on the details. Who did what? When? And what happened next? While these details are all important to understanding others’ experiences, we also need to hear the feelings behind what they are talking about.
So, a friend saying that she had a fight with her partner about what to do on the weekend doesn’t mean that we just need to ask about what they each wanted to do. Is she angry? Sad? Frustrated? That’s where empathy shows – when we can tune into someone’s feelings and talk about them.
We may not always understand or agree with what people are sharing. They may talk about feeling stressed about something that we don’t think is a big deal or talk about something they did that we think wasn’t right. Being empathetic means believing what others say even if we can’t relate.
Saying things like “It sounds like you’re really overwhelmed” or “You’re feeling guilty about what happened” show that we’ve heard their feelings and are really listening. Again, it’s not about us and our opinions – it’s about them and the support they need.
If you want to learn more about how to provide support to others, check out our Mental Health First Aid and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training course offerings. Click here for more info, including upcoming dates.