How to teach empathy to troubled teens: No.2

I like it when I feel that people understand me. Most of us do. Empathy is a wonderful thing!

People like this have a knack of putting us at ease and helping us to open up…

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/JBryson

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/JBryson

So what are the skills that empathic people have?

Being understood is one of life’s great joys. I don’t mean when someone basically understands the words we speak – that’s easy. I mean when we know someone “gets it.” Even more, when someone “gets us.”

This is particularly the case when things are not right and we need people to listen, understand and somehow connect with what we’re going through.

A personal example…

Recently, I was first on the scene at a fatal car crash. I helped to keep a young man alive for about 30 minutes. It was bloody. And then he died.

I’ve had lots of support from friends and family, which has been great. But after a day or two I was beginning to feel a bit guilty for not having “got over it.” Then I had an email from a colleague; it said,

“Sorry to hear about your encounter with tragedy – not something you can just brush off…”
When I read this, my guilt dissipated. Here was someone who “got it.”

Back to basics…

In our last post on this subject we established three key things:

  1. Young children begin learning about empathy from their care givers very early in life
  2. When children don’t get empathic care, they lack this learning and may struggle to show empathy for others
  3. And, most important of all, in order to teach empathy we must show empathy

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What does empathy look like?…

Thinking back over the people I’ve spoken to about my recent experience, there are some qualities that stand out in those who were empathic:

  • Asking – knowing that something had gone amiss, they asked how I was. Not a cursory, “how are you?” But a genuine enquiry. Eye contact, posture and tone of voice can all help in this. As does some qualifying statement, like, “I heard about the crash, how’re you doing now.” Young people may not be able to articulate the mechanics of good empathic conversation, but they’ll know whether you care or not…. Also, they may choose not to answer. But being asked in such a way as to communicate real care, connects. That matters.
  • Listening – there’re few things more irritating than talking to someone who keeps glancing over your shoulder to see what’s going on. Or looking at their watch or mobile phone while you speak. Very unsettling. It says, “I’m not really listening, I have other things on my mind.” Not a message we want young people to get at all! Keeping a focus on the person who’s speaking is central to the communication of concern and attentiveness. There’s no short cut for this. It’s a no brainer.

    Image - girl worries

    Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/VeryOlive

  • Reflecting – in the best traditions of therapeutic interviewing methods comes the art of reflection. We’ve mentioned eye contact, posture and tone of voice. But what about those non-verbal prompts, nods of the head, facial expressions that match the saliency of what’s being talked about? These matter too.
    • Repeating the last few words someone said gives two clear messages: 1) I heard it, and, 2) it’s OK to say more if you want to. Young people will often start with something less tricky in order to see how we take it. Whether we can take it!Reflection makes this clear and gives permission for more…
  • Reciprocating – I’m a believer in being honest in our work with young people. Wherever possible, we need to come clean with them. They’ll smell a rat if we try and tiptoe around the issues or pass over them quickly. One way of demonstrating our investment in them, and our value of them, is to share something of ourselves with them.
    • Being honest about some of our own experiences or struggles says, “I get you, I’ve been through stuff that made me feel the same way.” Used wisely, this is a powerful way of communicating our care. A reader of this website commented on another post this week, saying the following:

“I particularly like your reference to sharing your own experiences with the young person. Whilst not being the answer to all situations, in my experience, it goes a long way to developing the relationship and trust that underpins all productive relationships with troubled young people. I have recently made a breakthrough with a young care leaver, when he said ‘you are the only worker I have ever trusted’, when questioned why he said because I share stories with him about my life that are real.

  • Following up – When young people share things with us, they are often pretty serious. Sometimes they trust us with sensitive and painful truths about their own lives and experiences. Discreetly raising these again, in an appropriate moment, can be reassuring. It says, “I haven’t forgotten what you told, are you OK, I’m happy to talk again if it’ll help you.” Taking the initiative to share hard stuff takes real courage. We can help young people if we do the initiating.

These points come from my own reflections at work and after my recent brush with tragedy. Doubtless you will have your own to add – I’d love to hear them! Please comment below…

Question: How do you think we can better communicate empathy to troubled young people?

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Related posts…

How to teach empathy to troubled teens: No.1 (Click photo...)

How to teach empathy to troubled teens: No.1
(Click photo…)

Engagement: 4 steps to empathy…

Crime & punishment 3 – “Give a damn.”

Reflection: why we need it… 

Engaging teens: 8 quick tips…

Engaging teens: 6 more tips…


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