Understanding perspectives is an important part of this blog. Whether I’m discussing my own point-of-view or sharing details of other peoples’ experiences, perspective is a facet of mental health that should be included more in the conversation. Sharing our experiences is extremely important to help shrink the stigma, and something that’s just as important as sharing our experiences is allowing others to do the same. I want to build on this week’s post about seeing the world through a mental health lens by talking about empathic communication – a tool that puts the emphasis on listening – and how we can use it to help shrink the stigma.
So, first things first: what is empathic communication? Though there are many definitions and points of emphasis surrounding empathy and being empathetic, I found a definition from Learning Mind that I thought would be a good base for our understanding. In their words, empathic communication “in the simplest definition, means showing the other person that they are listened to and that their inner universe (thoughts, emotions, attitudes, values, etc.) is being understood.” It’s more than just listening to others and ‘putting yourself in their shoes’ – it’s showing those people that you are listening to them and understanding what they’re saying. And trust me, it isn’t easy to do.
Most conflict or misunderstanding comes from a breakdown in communication, and it isn’t hard to understand why. Whether it’s someone nodding their way through a conversation or a person practicing selective listening (only acknowledging what they want to hear in a conversation), the result is that we’re not having effective interactions. That means that details get lost in the shuffle, and when it’s an important conversation, those details matter even more.
So, how do we practice empathic communication? It’s hard work! And if you’ve ever been told to ‘practice empathy’ without getting a clear definition of what that means, I’m here to help. Practicing empathic communication means working on active listening (focusing on what someone is saying and not letting your mind wander) while a person is speaking, and not immediately responding. It’s instinct to respond as quickly as possible to what someone is saying, but the faster we respond, the less likely it is that we heard what they were saying. I often practice empathic communication by summarizing what someone’s said to me out loud and asking any follow-up questions afterward. Not only does it show I’m listening, but it also means that I won’t respond until I acknowledge that I understand what the other person is saying!
There are many more ways we can practice empathic communication, but the first step is understanding how important it is to listen. Ultimately, empathic communication is about understanding someone’s perspective and point-of-view, and carrying those thoughts into future interactions. It won’t change overnight, but this approach can help you remember details and meet others where they are. Short-term, you’ll have smoother interactions, and hopefully down the line this leads to richer, more meaningful conversations – one conversation at a time.