This week the world is shining a spotlight on mental wellness. But we all know this is a 24-7-365 process. However, we all need reminders to tell us how important our mental wellness is.
The focus this year, is on empathy; how we can be a greater support for those around us. Everyone has a story, and we have all needed someone to hear ours. Showing empathy doesn’t require special training or come from a genetically predisposition personality trait. It can be learned and honed…with a little practice.
Empathy is powerful. The Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) curriculum, states that empathy is the ability to “imagine yourself in the other person’s place, showing the person that they are truly heard and understood by you.” This is different from sympathy which focuses on a response of “pity”. As opposed to pity, showing empathy allows the person to feel heard which leads to the feeling of being included and supported, instead of isolated and disconnected.
Practicing empathy regularly not only benefits the individual confiding in you, but greatly improves your own ability to deal with stress and anxiety. Empathy puts you in the other “person’s shoes” for the moment and that can give a difficult situation some healthy perspective.
So how can you develop your empathy skills?
- Enter the situation without judgement. This includes avoiding the tendency to take sides. Remaining unbiased is an important part of empathy.
- Listen first…and then listen some more. Being heard is the most critical thing that individuals need when they are reaching out.
- Stay present. Avoid distractions, place your phone on mute and turn it upside down on the table. This action shows the person you are ready to be available to them.
- Keep the conversation about them. Avoid statements like “I know how you feel.” This turns the conversation back to you. Try words like “It sounds like you have had a hard day.” Or “I can tell this has really affected you.”
- Validate their feelings. Let them know that what they are feeling is understandable. This doesn’t mean that they should stay in a negative feeling but that this feeling is real and needs to be recognized.
- Know when you need to get more support. There will be times when situations resolve themselves with supportive conversations but suggest additional support when you recognize your limitations.
This not only works for our family and friends, but also when considering those chance encounters; the drive through attendant, the store cashier, even the driver that just cut you off without signaling. By practicing empathy, you will be better prepared to handle your own challenging situations, in a healthier way.