In a recent blog post where I was discussing what parents should do when confronted with the fact that their child has been bullying someone, I mentioned that during adolescence a teenager’s empathy dimmer switch is often — but not always — on low. This accounts for them sometimes not understanding when they may have hurt or offended somebody. I also went on to reassure parents that empathy is something that we can learn. With that in mind, I wanted to write a follow-up blog, giving you ten tips on how to be the boss when it comes to empathy.

But first I want to look at: what is empathy? I think Brené Brown in the video above explains it quite nicely. If you haven’t already watched said video, please pause reading this blog, and return once you have watched it.

1. Understand the difference between empathy and sympathy

The issue with empathy is that it often gets confused with sympathy. The number of times I have groaned inside when I have heard somebody claim they have been empathetic when they mean sympathetic is immeasurable.

Sympathy is where you understand the concept of an emotion, but it doesn’t go much further than an intellectual level of understanding. For instance, most people will offer sympathy towards victims of a disaster, because there is no fathomable way we could ever understand the pain and anguish they are going through.

If you want a complete breakdown of the differences, there is a great chart here

2. Use your own experiences — but don’t dwell

In most cases, however, even if you haven’t actually experienced what the person is going through, you will often be able to find some experience in your own life which you can reflect back on to help them.

Bare in mind though that it is not an opportunity to tell your life story. You are not important in this specific moment. Though your stories and experiences can prove helpful, your duty is to help guide the person through their own emotions. If you dwell on you for too long, you will send the message to the person you are trying to help that their struggles and emotions are not important.

3. It’s about emotions — duh!

This may seem like an obvious one, but it is one people often either forget or take for granted. To be empathetic, you need to keep in mind that you are not there to necessarily give advice or direction. Too many people fall into this trap. Yes, advice and guidance might be needed, but what is a necessity is that the person is guided through the maze of their emotions.

It is also important to remember that just because you’ve experienced things one way, it doesn’t mean they will be that way for someone else. Back when I was being bullied, there was a certain person who would give seemingly practical advice, but that advice would often blow up in my face. This was because they were basing their advice on their own experiences, and things had moved on 30 years.

4. You don’t always need to be present

Understanding a person’s boundaries is a massive factor in being empathetic. Judging whether a person needs or wants you there is vital. It could be, at that very moment what the person needs is to be left alone, in order to do some sorting in their head. Once they have done this, you will be okay to return.

There will be occasions where the person says they don’t want you there, this can be a bit nuanced, as I have certainly experienced times when somebody has said this, but actually when faced with the prospect they realised they did. It is so important that you respect how the person is dealing with their emotions. If they do actually want you, you will be there for them. Indeed, once they know that you are there for them when they call, but respectful enough to give them space. They are likely to start using you more.

5. It’s about being, not saying.

They talk about “being there” for someone for a very good reason because it is about “being”. Often people fall into the trap of needing to talk, but this can equally be harmful as it can be helpful. You might have been called into a situation to be a sounding board for somebody.

Only 7% of communication is words, 38% is tone. As I have said, often advice is not required. The difficulty then is knowing what to do. You need to reassure the person you are listening. This is why often making the appropriate grunting noise or “uh-huh” or ‘Yes” or ‘No” (depending on what has been said) can be more effective than a monologue.

There is one thing that is more effective than either of these and if you are any good at maths, you have probably worked out that we have only calculated for 45% of communication. This is because the remaining 55% of communication is — body-language. I cannot stress to you how important this is. Even if you had your mouth sewn up and voice box removed, you can still practice empathy.

Just picture a two-year-old, only just learning to talk waddling up to you and giving you a hug because they have sensed you are upset. That, my friends, in the epitome of empathy.

6. Know your limits

This final one is so crucial. Some people are so keen to help others they think they have to wear themselves out in order to do it. But, this, my friends is unwise. You are no use to anybody if you are worn out.

It is my belief that everybody has an emotional capacity. Each and every person has a different capacity — one that can change depending on age and life circumstances. But once that capacity is empty you cannot give any more.

You are not being a bad person for denying support, hopefully, it will only be for a short period of time, so you are able to refuel. But in doing this, you are enabling yourself to be more supportive over a longer period of time.

It is also important to know when it is time to give in. Sometimes, the emotional support a person needs is just too much for you to bear. It is okay to admit this and do not let anyone else make you think otherwise.

Tom Turner

Tom Turner

Founder & CEO

Tom has going on 24 years worth of experience of working with children and young people. Having started when he himself was only 11.

He has worked in various roles, from babysitting, helping run his churches Kids Church, as well as various youth groups. Including various Friday night youth groups, a political consultation group for young people to have their say on matters concerning young people that were currently going through parliament, and the UK Youth Parliament.

For a number of years worked as a mentor for troubled young people who were at risk of falling out of the system. While volunteering he went through Level 3 training in mentorship.

While still at school Tom was trained up as a mediator and helped make a difference in the lives of his fellow students who had fallen into conflict. He was even featured in a local ITV program about the mediation training.

Tom has studied both Child Development and Child Psychology and hopes to take this line of study further in the future. In the meantime, he has gained a Level 2 Counselling certificate and will be working towards Level 3 very soon.

Tom’s real experience, however, is first hand. Having been bullied from the age of 11 through to 19. It was this the finally lead him to set up Strength Restored in order to make a difference in the lives.

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