At TLCT we offer the Mental Health First Aid in the Workplace L3, Understanding Mental Health in the Workplace L2 and an Awareness of Mental Health. On all our courses the emphasis is on listening. Listening stops distress; the theme throughout all our delivery.

What is empathy?

Well, it isn’t sympathy as is so often the misguided impression. Sympathy is a form of agreement or judgement. Feeling sorry for someone. People can feed on sympathy making them dependent. Empathy on the other hand shows that you understand that person. It is registering, reflecting, or understanding the words that are being said. Empathetic listening uses not only the ears but the eyes and heart too, feeling the meaning of someone’s behaviour. No assumption or interpretation of motives is made just an understanding of the reality in another person.

Human beings need to be understood, affirmed and to be validated in order to be appreciated. Once this need is met support can be offered and problem-solving can begin. Connection is so important to allow the repair to start. We need to hear their feelings and needs, for once they have received empathy they will relax, and their word flow will slow as we contribute to their well-being.

Seek first to understand and try to see the world as they are seeing it. Most of us listen to reply and are considering our own autobiography whilst the other person is talking. The following prevent us from connecting empathetically and from really listening:

Advising – well what you should do …
One-upping – oh that’s nothing, when it happened to me it was much worse …
Educating – You knew that would happen, next time …
Consoling – It wasn’t your fault …
Storytelling – the same happened to me, let me tell you …
Shutting down – Cheer up it’s not so bad
Sympathising – oh you poor thing!
Interrogating – When, why, who, what …
Explaining – well the reason for that is …
Correcting – that’s surely not what happened …

We need to have an empty mind to listen empathetically. No advice to be given or your own position or feelings conveyed. Don’t assume they want reassurance, a fix or even advice. Focus on their message, give them time and space to express themselves and to feel understood. A Buddhist saying suggests “Don’t just do something, stand there”. Listen. It stops distress.

Marshall B Rosenburg states “Time and again, people transcend the paralyzing effects of psychological pain when they have sufficient contact with someone who can hear them empathetically”. Therefore, to connect with someone and truly listen to them can change their world for the better.

When we listen to reply we are filled with our own story and rightness. By stating “I know exactly how you feel” we are consumed with our own autobiography. We don’t know exactly how they feel. We can imagine but we don’t know for sure. We are all, thankfully, very different. How we experience thoughts and feelings is totally different to that of another person.

Stephen Covey suggests that there are four levels of listening.

Ignoring – not listening at all, having your own agenda. Pretending – Looking as though you are listening but in reality you are compiling your own to do list.

Selective – picking out only the parts you find interesting or can relate to. Attentive – uncomfortably focused on every single detail.

There is the fifth level and that is empathic listening!

Be quiet and let them speak their thoughts. Murmur, nod and smile occasionally. Recap or paraphrase to show you are listening and have understood their narrative. Paraphrasing gives us the opportunity for them to correct us, to reflect on what they have said and to delve deeper within themselves. They may want to make sure we truly understand them. It is important to be aware of the tone you use when paraphrasing. Try not to appear critical or sarcastic as this will cause them to close down and no longer trust you. Use the opportunity to ask whether you have understood and demonstrate that you are not claiming to have understood. They will be grateful for that time, that quiet and for someone who is really listening to them. By listening in this way, you are showing that they and their thoughts are valued and that you care.

Our social history and culture have taught us that silence is awkward. It is not; it is golden. When people stop speaking it does not mean they have stopped thinking. When people become quiet they are very busy in their thoughts. They are within their private world but know you are there when they return. Let them tell you where they and their thoughts have been on their return. Quiet can feel awkward but do give them this opportunity to gather and process their thoughts. You do not know what they are gathering, processing, or considering only that it is taking place. Respect their quiet. Rosenberg says, “empathise with silence by listening for the feelings and needs behind it”.

Instead of listening to reply or respond listen to understand. An empathetic response could be “What can I do to make this feel better for you?” “Is there anything I could say or do to help you with your feelings about what you are going through?”

Listening with empathy is the best tool you have in supporting someone who is struggling. No judgement, criticism, quick fix, or advice. Give them time, space and quiet to work it out for themselves. Check you are understanding their feelings and thoughts. Then and only then can you offer the support they need for their well-being and their positive decision-making.

For more on listening skills why not enrol on one of our Mental Health courses? Level 3 Mental Health First Aid in the Workplace, Level 2 Understanding Mental Health in the Workplace, or Mental Health Awareness. All our Mental Health courses cover listening skills and empathy. Listening Stops Distress.