The Role of Empathy and Listening in Mental Health
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Do you consider yourself to be empathic and a good listener? Empathy and listening are very important skills you should have to maintain good relationships. And good relationships are very important for your mental health, especially your emotional health. We should all be surrounded by people that make us feel good about ourselves and support us when we are in need. One of the most important things about empathy and good listening is that with these skills we can notice if someone is struggling with mental health issues and even help them.
So, what is Empathy?
Psychologists and researchers call it a sophisticated skill. Having the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, imagining what life is like for someone else, and seeing the world as someone else sees it are all, in fact, skills of empathy that every human being should have.
Are you a good empath?
Being a good empath means you can share someone else’s feelings and experiences by imagining what it would be like and how you would feel in their situation. So, whenever you find yourself thinking or saying, “I can relate”, after one of your friends tells you he or she feels lonely, or lost their job, or is feeling stressed, you are practicing the skill of empathy.
Why is it so important to have empathy?
Being able to see the world through the eyes of someone different from us is necessary in the world we live in, given the fact that we are all humans and struggling with something in life. All of us need to feel seen or heard. If you don’t feel this way now, let’s hope you do in the future. Be aware and try to understand your friends or colleagues when they are going through a hard time.
When someone is struggling, the first important step you should take is to recognize what they are feeling and going through. After this, you can try to help fix the problem if you are asked.
However, if you struggle with empathy, don’t worry! You can learn and practice this skill. By doing it, you will help other people and get to know yourself and your own feelings better, thus improving your emotional health. This skill will help you lead, communicate and help you support and connect with other people in any environment you find yourself in, including at home, at work, etc…
Tips to improve the skill of empathy
Some people are naturally more empathic than others or grew up in an environment where empathy was taught. But, if you struggle with practicing empathy, the following tips will help you:
- Have deep conversations with people. Have conversations about people’s feelings and experiences. Since empathy is about understanding other perspectives, by talking you will get exposed to different lifestyles, worldviews, and life experiences. Be curious, ask open-ended questions, and pay attention to how the other person expresses themselves – to their facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.
- Try something new. Experiencing other perspectives is one of the best ways to learn and understand. You can travel to a new country, spend time in a different environment, volunteer, etc…
- Read some fiction. By reading stories, you will increase your empathy as you enter the character’s thoughts and feelings and explore their point of view. Try reading books by authors who have a different background from you.
- Teach your kids. Teaching empathy to your kids is very important to help connect and understand others. Express your feelings, explain your emotions, and then help your kids express and explain theirs. Ask them questions about how they are feeling, and how they think others might be feeling.
- Be present and pay attention. Calm your mind, become more aware, and be truly present to notice your feelings and the feelings of others.
What is the art of listening?
Communication is another basis for good relationships, and practicing the art of listening is an effective strategy to strengthen our relationships.
Have you ever had a terrible day? For example, work was stressful, you lost your wallet and your partner even broke up with you? And then you go to your friend to let it all out and they start judging you? Saying things like “I always told you to be more careful with your wallet. I’m surprised you didn’t lose it before” or “Well, you weren’t a great match anyway”. How would you feel after this? Terrible, right? – You wanted to feel listened to, but now you just feel judged and regret talking with your friend in the first place.
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Now, think about yourself. Were you ever the judging friend?
Even unintentionally, at some point, everyone is most likely to have responded like this in some situation. Maybe even when dealing with your own kids.
So how can you start being a good listener? Good listening is active, and you practice it by being truly present. It is making sure the person talking to you feels heard and understood.
So, just keep in mind that whenever you are talking with someone who is struggling, you shouldn’t do the following things:
- Try to find a solution to “fix” someone’s problem. Problem-solving is important of course, but don’t forget that sometimes people need to feel heard and process what happened and what they are feeling to keep a fresh mind and be able to find a solution. As a friend, make sure you know what your friend needs. At first, they might simply want someone to listen and help them process what has happened.
- Don’t offer “harsh truth” or “tough love”. It is often not helpful. All of us have different ways of viewing the world and dealing with situations. These can mislead you into analyzing things from your own perspective and responding according to them. Well, what happens here is you probably respond with a lack of empathy and say things that are unhelpful to hear. The last thing someone struggling needs to hear is “Don’t be sad” or “It could be worse”. Despite your intentions of helping your friend, such comments can make them feel like you’re disregarding their pain. Rephrase and show you are listening and understanding. For example, saying something like “That sounds overwhelming” after your friend tells you how stressed he is about all the things he has to do, is a great alternative.
Focus on listening to understand. This is way more supportive and helpful than judging. And if you are not sure what to say, don’t worry! Tune into the other person’s experience and go from there. Be sure, you start by really listening and showing empathy. Showing you care is a great first step.
How can you improve your listening skills?
You can improve your listening skills and even make your relationships stronger by:
- Showing that you are listening. Simple phrases like “I’m here for you” or “I’m listening” are meaningful and can go a long way.
- Avoiding distractions. If you want to improve your connection with the other person, you can go somewhere where you won’t be disturbed and turn on the silent mode on your phone.
- Try not to make the conversation about you. If your friend is struggling, listen to them and try to put yourself in their shoes, show some sensitivity. Try not to give advice or your opinion right away. Instead, focus on what they are saying and feeling. Make sure you are not talking more than your friend.
- Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Sometimes, you are too focused on not making a mistake or saying anything wrong. This can get in the way of the quality of listening. You are there to let the other person know you understand, not to fix their problem.
- Don’t underestimate the power of real listening. Good listening does a lot for someone, keep this in mind when you feel like you haven’t done enough.
The power of empathy and good listening in mental health
Empathy and listening are important mental healthcare practices. Something all of us have learned with the pandemic is that something can happen at any moment and bring anxiety, stress, and fear with it. I mean to say that, in the last few years, no one expected a pandemic to come and completely change our lives. It has impacted our collective wellness and mental health. This shows that practicing empathy for others and ourselves is truly important. Thinking of others and looking for ways to help even in small things can mean a lot to someone else.
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If someone is suffering from depression or anxiety symptoms or any other mental issue, they can get lonely very easily if they don’t feel listened to. In these certain situations, support is very necessary. But of course, don’t try to force someone to talk, just be available and ready to listen. Be patient. If and when the person feels comfortable enough, they will come to you on their own.
Also, when someone is dealing with depression, they may feel things more intensely and negatively. Something unimportant for you can affect them greatly. In this case it is even more important to practice empathy. Let the person know they are heard and understood. You don’t want to make them feel like their pain is not valid. That might make them feel guilty and lead to a worse mental state.
You will be surprised by how much you learn about someone by actively listening to them. Good listening can give you the ability to notice signs of mental illness. Once you have noticed that you are in a better position to offer support and help.
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You should also keep in mind that having empathy and compassion for yourself is as important as having empathy for others. Whenever you feel burnt out or stressed, slow down instead of putting too much pressure on yourself and setting unrealistic goals. Self-care is important and key to maintaining your well-being and good mental health.
How to protect your mental health from empathy and compassion fatigue
Compassion fatigue happens after we spend so much of our personal energy trying to listen, understand and support others that we become exhausted ourselves. When this happens, we may be thinking so much about other people’s experiences and well-being that we forget to think about our own. This can lead to doubting our feelings, experiences, wants, and needs.
It is necessary and kind to have empathy, but you should never compromise your own mental health. Pay attention to someone else’s experiences without losing sight of your own. You have to be able to have empathy and recognize others’ experiences and separate them from your own.
Some strategies to help protect yourself against compassion fatigue while engaging in empathy are:
Setting healthy boundaries with others. Whenever you are fatigued or stressed and don’t feel capable of supporting someone, express those feelings.
Identify sources of support for yourself and use them.
Spending time resting and doing things you like to recharge your energy.
Spending time meditating, journaling, or chatting with a friend about your own feelings and experiences helps you stay in touch with them while still being empathetic to others.
We are all human beings despite our differences, and we are all going through life and the unexpected changes that our world brings together. If you are not struggling today, you might be tomorrow. So, keep this in mind and try to understand and listen to your friend if you have the chance. Reach out whenever and however you can and make sure you too ask for help when you need it.
Having empathy and the ability to truly listen can do so much for someone and yourself. Be there for your friends however you can but don’t forget to be there for the most important person in your life: You!
If you employ all these tips in your life and relationships, you will have a positive impact on collective mental health.