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Listening with empathy

One of Samaritans core values is being able to listen with empathy.

Empathy is something that really drives connection. You demonstrate empathy by trying to take on the other persons’ perspective. Listen to the emotion they’re describing and actively recognise it. Think of it using the analogy of a person stuck down a dark hole. You need to climb down the ladder and get in that hole with them.

Empathy is different from sympathy. If you approach the conversation by trying to fix what the person’s problem is, you’re probably showing sympathy, not empathy. It puts more distance between you and might make them feel like they’re being judged. You’re not in it with them. It’s like looking at the person stuck in that dark hole and saying, ‘Oh that looks terrible, at least you’re still standing’.

Empathy is important as it is the key to building rapport with the person you’re listening to and actually helping them feel better. A lot of the time when we feel stuck, we feel isolated. By empathising, even if you don’t know quite what to say, you’re demonstrating that you’re right there with them. That connection is what makes all the difference. 

This video helps to show the difference between empathy and sympathy.

If we’re trying to understand the difference between sympathy and empathy, let’s start by imagining a run. Sympathy is a little like this. Oh, you poor thing. Have you been running long? It must be really hard. You look so tired and thirsty and hot and sticky. At least you’re not going as far as I am. Maybe you should try cycling… anyway, if you need me, I’ll be up ahead. Carry on. You’re nearly there. Try and keep your knees raised. When we sympathise with someone, we feel sorry for them. We might offer them advice about what we would do in their situation or try to help them to look on the bright side. But we remain apart from them, never really sharing in their experience. Empathy is different. Do you mind if I run with you? With empathy. We’re not separating ourselves from the other person. We’re joining them where they are so we can better understand what it feels like to be them. Empathy doesn’t judge and it doesn’t advise. It doesn’t try to make things better. Instead, it creates a connection with the other person that allows them to express their pain and let it out. Thanks for running alongside me.

Which of the answers to these examples demonstrates empathy?

Tom has been speaking to you for 10 minutes about how he’s feeling right now, “I just feel so useless, what’s the point?”

A:“You sound like you’re in a dark place Tom. When you say you’ve been thinking what’s the point, can you tell me more about that?”

B: “Yeah, I bet that’s hard, I’m sorry you feel like that.”

Janet has been speaking about working and looking after her kids on her own. “Getting up in the morning is getting harder and harder,” she says, “I’m just not coping.”

A: “But at least you are still getting up Janet, that takes a lot of strength, it shows you are coping in some way.”

B: “Not coping? Can you tell me a bit more about that?”

If someone is still feeling low after your conversation, and if they may be struggling to cope, it’s probably a good idea that they get some support, whether it is through talking to someone like a counsellor or getting specific advice for their situation.

Useful questions you might ask them include:

  • ‘Have you talked to anyone else about this?’
  • ‘Would you like to get some help?’
  • ‘Would you like me to come with you?’

Or, for someone who is reluctant to get help:

  • ‘Do you have someone you trust you can go to?’
  • ‘If it helps, you can talk to me any time.’

2 replies on “Listening with empathy”

  • I think you would get more from emphathy. when talking to someone in distress. I think the person being talked with would feel ownership of the conversation. but at the same time bringing out facts about how they are really feeling.

  • showing you care and want to make time to listen, can help others feel they have support and may then open up to you.

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