For as long as I can remember, I have believed passionately that we have the power, through how we connect and communicate, to make someone’s life easier, or worse.

Through a series of personal bereavements, challenging and uncompassionate processes, and with my background in counselling and psychology, I have also lived and breathed both the presence and absence of empathy and emotional awareness.

This was none more so than when I lost a 15-year-old child in patient safety circumstances in 2003 and went through a challenging complaints system and inquest process, at the most vulnerable time of my life. Wellbeing, empathy and psychological safety for me, and the hospital staff, appeared totally absent.

Thankfully, my counselling training gave me a basis to psychologically support myself and re-frame things in a way that helped me cope; this all now feeds into my work supporting people in the legal profession, health service and other sectors working with vulnerable people. Taking empathy ‘out of the textbook’ and into real life application, I focus on three main foundations:

1) emotional awareness;

2) staying in an enquiring mind; and

3) personal wellbeing.

What is empathy – when it is present? And of course, what it isn’t! What it can feel like when it is received. And indeed, what it can feel like when it’s not present and psychological safety and civility is not evident. And just how incredibly complex it can be, yet massively powerful when achieved.

Time and again, my observation when supporting professionals who work in areas where empathy is vital and secondary/vicarious trauma is experienced, is that this has a tangible and long-term impact, often creating PTSD. The legal sector is one of the professions where little emphasis is placed on vicarious trauma and its impact on empathy and compassion levels. Part of being a skilled professional is to recognise our own human vulnerability and the ‘funnel of life’ we all experience (see ‘Compassion Fatigue at the Bar’, Rachel Francis and Joanna Fleck, Counsel September 2021.

In reality, set words, phrases and actions are often given priority in empathic upskilling – listen, understand, acknowledge, validate, feel, act: do this and you will never hit barriers, in others or yourself. While these things are important, they are much easier to implement long term when we feel psychologically safe and well ourselves.

And if empathy were as simple as just following a toolkit, we would all be doing it, with ease, most of the time. However, humans and their emotions are complex:

  • We struggle to see others’ perspectives because they often don’t make sense in the context of our own experiences and stories, and often let this go by undetected.
  • We struggle to understand, maybe because we don’t feel we have the experiences to identify sufficiently with another.
  • We don’t always have the emotional reserves to support the component parts of empathy; ie imagining; feeling some of the feeling; and looking at what action might need to be compassionately taken.
  • Given that it can be cognitively costly to engage empathically, we may wonder is it worth it, and how does it really help.

1. Emotional awareness

The first foundation – emotional awareness – is one of the key skills yet often not talked about when considering empathic toolsets and skills.

So, let me pose this question: What does it actually feel like for you, when another person has really listened and understood what you have had to say? Think about this for a moment. Professionally or personally. What emotions can you recall when you have experienced someone really interested in what you are saying and feeling? If you can’t recall an example, what about a time when someone has not seemed interested? Our brains’ negative bias will more likely bring this to the forefront of our minds.

Whatever the profession; the same kind of answers come up time after time. When someone is interested in what you have to say:

  • we feel understood and safe, often with a sense of relief;
  • we feel engaged and empowered;
  • trust is built; we disclose more and open up;
  • we feel more positive; and
  • confidence is built; we feel our opinion matters.

When someone is not interested in what you have to say:

  • we can start to feel paranoid;
  • we develop self-doubt; questioning self and questioning the other;
  • we feel angry and frustrated; and
  • we can feel misunderstood, isolated and disappointed.

Empathic communication is not a passive process for the giver or receiver; it has a felt component. By understanding what this can feel like for us, it can give us the confidence to understand, more deeply, what we can provide to another, even when the outcomes may still be very challenging and traumatic. It gives us a connection and provides psychological safety.

2. Stay in an enquiring mind

The second foundation for empathic communication is staying in an enquiring mind; ie allowing ourselves to explore the story and another person’s perspective.

As we attempt to step into the shoes of others, we often guess and conclude much because of our own footwear. An enquiring mind is not about necessarily putting on another’s shoes (sometimes we can’t) but using our imagination to recognise that someone else’s footwear may be very different from our own. How might it feel to be in this situation, in the kind of footwear they are wearing? Stay curious and be aware of your own shoes. How do you label, for example? Because we all do. What are your biases? Because we all love to think we don’t have any, but of course we all do. It’s part of being human.

3. Personal wellbeing

Now let’s consider that third crucial foundation – personal wellbeing – particularly when professionals and those they work with are often having to manage traumatic, sensitive, and difficult situations.

It is crucial because, there you are, emotionally aware, staying in that enquiring mind, along with other empathic practices that can support communication, asking yourself: What has your personal wellbeing got to do with your empathic skills? Well, everything actually. There is a hierarchy of needs, of competing needs, and when our wellbeing drops, then our empathy energy can often drop with it. We may not be consciously aware, but we are in survival mode, because we do not have the emotional reserves to engage empathically with another.

This foundation forms a big part of my work and led me to write the BE HUMAN Model that I wrote in response to the pandemic to support my clients. We can all be subject to secondary trauma, or vicarious trauma, in personal life as well as in work. We can end up normalising adverse situations to cope and sometimes to suppress. If this trauma becomes overwhelming and is rarely recognised or processed, we can end up with secondary traumatic stress, and if that goes on too long, we can end up in burn-out, just as many of your clients may be experiencing too.

In terms of our empathic abilities, though, in burn-out, all those excellent empathic skills you have gained, practised, and become great at, become much less accessible. So, when I am asked, is your wellbeing massively important – my answer is YES! Because in reality, you are your greatest empathic toolkit. As I always say when delivering training: You cannot give a hungry person food, if your plate is empty.

Why empathy makes a real difference

When working with traumatised people, and when dealing with vulnerability, empathy really is a powerful tool. It can’t change facts and circumstances, but it can create an environment in which people feel heard, acknowledged, understood and validated. When we develop the foundations of our empathic mindset – emotional awareness, having an enquiring mind and personal wellbeing – we create ways of deepening the human connection, and communicating with care, in a way that recognises and gives way to our own important self-compassion.