The Power of Empathy

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Mental Health Week is a national celebration introduced in Canada in 1951. Its 70-year-old purpose is to raise awareness so that we open our eyes and hearts to the consequences of mental health on our loved ones. Last year, the Canadian Mental Health Association created a campaign, #GetReal. It focused on getting individuals to name, deal with, and express their emotions. Individuals such as Canada’s Prime Minister, the Chief Public Health Minister, other civic leaders, and influencers participated in the campaign. The #GetReal reached over 256 million users on social media.

This year’s theme is Empathy.

You empathize with a person when you can imagine how they might feel based on what you know about that person. The campaign recalls when former US President Barack Obama suggested the “biggest deficit in the world was an empathy deficit.”

There has been research on the importance of empathy in leadership, healthcare, education, and parenting. Incorporating empathy in our relationships builds trust, reduces anxiety, and increases our sense of well-being.

Empathy is an important skill when dealing with people experiencing mental health troubles (mild or severe). It’s your ability to actively listen to them, understand why they feel the way they do, and relate to their circumstances. Some experts assert that it’s the ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes and feel what they feel.

When people go through life events that disturb or impact their mental health, they are often in dire need to be understood by someone. People with empathetic skills can give them the support they seek at such a critical time.  Empathy is different from sympathy. When you sympathize with people, you show them pity. When you show empathy; the concerned party leaves with a feeling that they are understood and heard.

Empathy also requires you to be non-judgmental.  When listening empathetically, you’re not listening to the person to find faults or pick sides. You’re just listening to understand. Both individuals will leave the conversation understanding the other person’s feelings, desires actions and decisions.

People sometimes refrain from showing empathy because they are worried they won’t agree with or accept the actions of the other person. Sometimes that happens.  Which is why empathy isn’t necessarily about accepting what the other person has done as right or wrong. Instead, it’s just understanding their why; without judgment.

It’s possible to improve your empathetic skills. First, you must learn to listen to people actively. Active listening means devoting your full attention when people seek to express themselves. Beyond listening, you must be resolute about taking a perspective focused on understanding the speaker without judgment. It will help if you acknowledge any bias/prejudice you carry and discard them before the conversation ensues.

While you listen, focus on the individual’s expressed feelings. It can be calming, relieving, and sometimes healing to feel heard and understood. As the conversation proceeds, phrases that show active listening are important. Phrases like: “I understand how you feel,” “Oh, I see,” and “I understand now” show that you’re listening.  It’s also important to validate feelings in the other person. Let them know that it’s okay to feel this way, and support them to honour how they feel.

Empathetic listening is key in all of our relationships, at work, school and play, try it and see if you can make a difference in how someone else is feeling today.

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