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The Quiet Power of Empathic Listening

Many of us forget that we all possess one of the most effective tools to aid someone experiencing a mental health crisis.


We hear a lot about active listening – listening and responding to another person to improve mutual understanding. For people in roles like a nurse or doctor, engaging and responding while listening is an ideal strategy. Checking information during a conversation helps ensure patients receive the correct treatments and medications.

But for situations when someone is experiencing symptoms of a mental health crisis, there is another kind of listening that can be more effective: empathetic listening. For a person experiencing a mental health problem, having an empathetic listener can be calming and reassuring – even healing.

Empathy, unlike sympathy, does not mean we agree with the other person or see things from the same point of view. Instead, it requires taking a moment to step outside of our normal patterns of thinking and feeling to imagine what it feels like to be the person in front of us.

 “Most people experiencing distressing emotions and thoughts want an empathetic listener before being offered helpful options and resources.”

— Mental Health First Aid USA manual

The first way to diffuse a tense situation is to establish rapport with the person in distress. Listening quietly, without engaging in problem-solving, signals that you are on that person’s side. This simple gesture validates the other person’s experience.

Listening empathetically allows the listener to really hear and understand what is being said. It also makes it easier for the other person to feel they can talk freely without being judged.

Here are some ways to show empathy the next time you encounter someone who may be experiencing a mental health crisis:

  1. Focus on conveying empathy and not on changing the person or their perspective.
  2. Slow down. Distress often increases the speed of our speech and gestures. Give the person in front of you enough time to express themselves.
  3. Use a relaxed body posture. Stay close enough to the person to show you care, but do not touch the person without asking first.

Our distress increases when we feel isolated. By showing empathy, you can help the person in front of you calm down.

Remember, the person in front of you shares your human condition – with all its needs, struggles and desires. Although you might fear making someone uncomfortable, remember that many people experiencing mental health symptoms want someone to notice them and offer support.

To learn more about how to help those around you who live with mental illness or a substance use disorder, find a Mental Health First Aid course near you.

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