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Wellness: Building Empathy

Posted October 10, 2017

Wellness is a special blog series that aims to promote an honest, open, and supportive culture of physical and mental health on campus.

In this installment, Director of Counseling, Disability and Tutoring Services, Darcy Storms, LMSW shares her thoughts on how to increase your ability to be empathic.

Director of Counseling and Disability Services Darcy StormsDarcy Storms

Depression creates a lonely place. Many people walk around hiding, day in and day out, fearing that their secret will be discovered by someone. On the outside, they are trying to show the public that everything is okay, but inside them are feelings of fear, sadness, and exhaustion. Worst of all, thought patterns produced while people are depressed can cause them to shut out the very people they need most. 

Think about a time you were afraid to tell someone your thoughts and feelings. Where you afraid of falling apart if someone asked, “how are you?” Were you more afraid of what you were going to say or how those in your life would react to your response? 

This kind of fear is common, and it shows us how empathy can play a key role in addressing the issues that cause it. By learning how to be empathic towards others and showing that empathy in meaningful ways, we can increase the likelihood that those who need support will reach out.

What is Empathy?
Empathy is an awareness of others’ feelings, needs, and concerns. It creates connections between people, brings them together, forges friendship, and provides important social support structures. Empathy is primarily innate, but it can be learned as well.

Tips for Developing and Showing Empathy

  • Practice reading non-verbal body language.
    Watch body language and facial expressions to pick up on what others are feeling.
  • Practice looking at yourself in the mirror and notice your facial expressions.
    Practice making good eye contact; this shows that you are concerned and are willing and interested in listening.
  • Tell the person what you heard them say in your own words.
    This way, they can correct misinterpretation or confirm that you heard correctly. In other words, paraphrase.
  • Try for authentic listening.
    Most people do not truly listen but spend their time planning what they will say next. Instead, focus on hearing the other person’s thoughts and feelings.
  • Respectfully share your reactions and feelings.
    React to what is being said with the intent of showing the person you are listening and understanding.
  • Think about what it would be like to be in their shoes.
    What if you woke up and found you had switched places with someone who’s struggling? Would you think differently about what they’re going through?
  • Be aware of your emotions while listening.
    Awareness will help you understand how your emotions might be affecting your thoughts and reactions.
  • Avoid giving advice.
    It’s better to help people come to a solution on their own by asking questions. Giving advice can minimize the problem.

If you want to play a role in preventing silence, you need to keep in mind that listening and having empathy is not about solving or fixing problems; it means being with the person, truly listening to them, and helping them sort through their options. You do not have to have all the answers, but you do need to lend your ear, and always defer to professionals when necessary.

If you or someone you know needs mental health counseling, please contact [email protected].


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