The power of empathetic conversations

The following article is sponsored content from Australian Unity and is general advice only.

In what are challenging times, it’s never been more important to ask your friends, family and colleagues if they’re getting the support they need.

You may have noticed that something isn’t quite the same, that they seem out of sorts and just not themselves. Asking if they’re ok lets them know they have the love and support they might be looking for.

But it’s also important to know what to say if someone says they’re not ok.

What do you say? How do you respond? What are people looking for when they open up and share that they’re struggling?

You don’t have to have all the answers but knowing what to say (and just as importantly, what not to say) means you can help someone feel loved and supported to get the help they might need.

Razia Ali, Mental Health Coach for Remedy Healthcare, says empathy is a powerful act of support that helps people overcome their fears of asking for help.

“I try to put myself in their shoes and how hard it must be to ask for help with their mental health in the first place,” she says. “One of the biggest barriers to asking for help is the stigma that still surrounds talking openly about mental health.”

What can I do to help?

Listen, listen, listen … and then listen some more.

By listening and caring, you’re giving someone the time and attention they truly need.

And it doesn’t always have to be a sit-down talk either. Go for a walk and a chat and you might be surprised at how much easier the conversation flows.

Actively listening to people and taking what they say seriously is the first critical step. Don’t interrupt, don’t judge, a simple acknowledgment of their experiences and how tough things are will encourage them to keep talking.

Don’t be scared of silence either, people sometimes need time to articulate their thoughts.

“People are craving to be heard,” Razia says. “Putting people at the centre of the conversation lets them know that they are important as an individual.

“Being heard and understood is the key to validating people’s feelings and experiences. And you can also help normalise their concerns about what they are going through.”

How to respond

When they’ve finished speaking, foster more encouragement by asking how they feel, and show that you’ve been actively listening by repeating back in your own words what you understand to be the issue. Follow that up by asking if you have understood them correctly.

You can also mention you’ve noticed some changes in their mood or demeanour. Asking if they want to keep talking about things can also elicit further conversations that allows them to feel comfortable and that they can trust they won’t be judged.

“People are already struggling because of what they are going through,” Razia says. “It’s important to look at the conversation from their point of view. Having that rapport means those difficult conversations can be easier.

“Their concerns start with ‘no one can help or understand what I am going through’. When we acknowledge their concerns and worries and let them know that it’s common for people to feel this way with life challenges, it tells them that they have been heard.”

Key phrases to use

It’s important to focus on providing outlets for their responses, as opposed to trying to “solve” or “fix” the problem. It’s not your job to provide solutions but to enable them to share their concerns and fears without the stigma of judgement.

It could just be “I’m really sorry to hear about all that” to make them feel validated and heard. Following that up with “what else can I do to help?” or “would you like to talk about it some more?” can also be extremely helpful. You can also offer to help them find professional support and accompany them to subsequent appointments.

“I have heard some people say, ‘I am being silly, many other people are going through a lot more than me’”, Razia says. “Letting them know that what they are going through is not ok and that what they’re feeling is important makes it clear they are your sole focus at that moment.

“What this does is put them at the centre of their own life and tells them that they do not have to suffer alone. Getting treatment for your mental health is as normal as going to your GP for a constant headache or any physical pain. It’s not ok for people to suffer in silence.”

Make time to check in

Follow up with them a few days later, just as a check-in to see how they’re doing. Ask if they’ve found a better way to manage things.

It’s really important to understand that not everyone can quickly embrace the notion of seeking professional support, so it can take a while for someone to actively get help.

If that’s the case, just keep going with positive reinforcement and let them know you’re always around if they need to talk. If you can, talk about the benefits of trying a different method and that professional support is there to help. It’s also a good idea to make sure they’re aware of how their GP can assist with mental health plans and accessing government-subsidised treatment options.

Beyond Blue (24/7) – 1300 224 636

Lifeline – 13 11 14

Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467

Kids Helpline – 1800 551 800

MensLine – 1300 789 978

SANE Australia – 1800 187 263

Disclaimer: Information provided in this article is not medical advice and you should consult with your healthcare practitioner. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.