Mental Health Week: What is empathy and why is it important?
May 03, 2022

It’s Mental Health Week and the theme is empathy. So what is empathy? And how can you get better at it?

If you’re part of the Georgian community, access our full series of posts about empathy on the student portal or employee portal (you’ll need to log in first). Here are three of those posts to get you started.

What is empathy and why is it important?

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It’s about holding space for someone and supporting them through meaningful action.

At Georgian, we strive to create a culture where kindness and empathy are the norm.

Empathy is also increasingly a skill employers value and can help you build stronger connections in all areas of your life.

Empathy: the awareness of the feelings of others. Validate others' feelings. Be genuinely curious about other. Imagine yourself in others' shoes. Be an attentive listener. Discover similarities. Share who you are.

Watch this video by renowned researcher Dr. Brené Brown, describing the difference between empathy and sympathy. 


Nine ways to practise empathy

Empathy can help us connect more meaningfully with others and better understand their perspectives.

Research shows there are many benefits to empathy, which include reducing bullying and improving overall health. It also shows empathy is contagious! 

Try out two or three of these ideas this week:

  1. When you listen to others, give them your full attention
  2. Be more curious about people – don’t make assumptions or box others into stereotypes
  3. Do your best to offer others a comfortable, safe and supportive space
  4. Recognize your biases or where you have strong opinions, and try to be open about alternative viewpoints
  5. Let go of judgments and the need for something to be right or wrong
  6. Avoid comparing or offering unsolicited advice
  7. Be mindful of your tone, facial expression and body language – are you closed off or approachable?
  8. Offer help or do something kind unasked
  9. Use your imagination to try to understand the experiences of others – what would it feel like if you were going through what they are or have?

Watch this video by author Jamil Zaki on how we’re experiencing an empathy shortage but can work together to fix it.


Using empathy to turn toward others

Turning away isn’t something most of us at Georgian generally want to do but sometimes we’re not quite sure how to best hold space for others. That’s where empathy can come in.

Try out Helen Reiss’ EMPATHY acronym the next time someone around you needs support. 

E: Eye contact. An appropriate level of eye contact can make people feel seen and improve communication. Riess recommends focusing on someone’s eyes at least long enough to see what colour they are and making sure you’re face-to-face when communicating.

M: Muscles in facial expressions. We often automatically mimic other people’s expressions without realizing it. Being able to identify another’s feelings—often by distinctive facial muscle patterns—and mirroring them, can help us communicate empathy.

P: Posture. Sitting in a slumped position can indicate a lack of interest or dejection; sitting upright signals respect and confidence. By understanding what postures communicate, we can take a more open posture—face forward, legs and arms uncrossed, leaning toward someone—to encourage more open communication and trust.

A: Affect (or emotions). Learning to identify what someone else is feeling and naming it can help us better understand their behaviour or the message/meaning behind their words.

T: Tone. “Because tone of voice conveys over 38 per cent of the nonverbal emotional content of what a person communicates, it is a vital key to empathy,” writes Riess. She suggests matching the volume and tone of the person you’re talking to and, generally, using a soothing tone to make someone feel heard. 

H: Hearing. Sometimes we don’t truly listen to one another, possibly because of preconceptions or being distracted. Empathic listening means asking questions that help people express what’s really going on and listening without judgment.

Y: Your response. Riess is not talking about what you’ll say next, but how you resonate with the person you’re talking to. Whether or not we’re aware of it, we tend to synch up emotionally with people, and how well we do it plays a role in how much we understand them.

Two people having a conversation in a booth

“It’s hard to watch someone who is suffering,” writes Jill Suttie in a review of researcher Helen Riess’ book The Empathy Effect. “We may feel their pain or absorb their sorrow; we may worry that we won’t know what to do or say. Those uncomfortable moments might make us turn away from their distress—to preserve our own well-being or to carry on with our lives.”

What prevents you from being there for someone going through a hard time?

Make a mental list. It might include:

  • a fear of uncomfortable silence
  • worry about saying the wrong thing
  • having your support rejected
  • not knowing if you’ll help or make things worse

Mental health resources for Georgian students

Be Well @ Georgian

A text service that sends helpful tips right to your phone when you need them most!

Learn more about Georgian resources and workshops. Be reminded of ways to take care of your well-being.

Conversations in Mental Health

Put your mental health and well-being at the centre of your educational experience.

Take 45 to 60 minutes to complete this resource designed to help you flourish. Find it in Blackboard under Courses.

Togetherall

Join Togetherall to anonymously access an online community where people can support one another. 

​​​​​​​It’s open and clinically managed by professionals 24/7. It includes helpful self-assessment tools, courses and resources.

Mental Health and Well-Being at Georgian College logo

Faculty and employees can access most of these resources too. Instructors can access Conversations in Mental Health from their Blackboard homescreen. Employees can request access by emailing [email protected].