Showing Care through Empathic Listening in Suicide Prevention

Is it a simple or difficult thing to do?

By C. Kermit, April 2021

It was an hour-long conversation. No, rather, it was more like a monologue  between 2 people, each taking turns to say what we wanted to say, without understanding what the other party was trying to convey. In the end, we ended the “conversation” because it was time to go home. But, did we really listen to each other?

What if, hidden in this conversation, was the cry for help? Would we have heard it? Or would we have displayed the same level of nonchalance? Would we have overlooked or missed an important moment for us to show care to an individual struggling with suicidal ideation?

What does it mean to listen? Is it the passive process of taking in sound waves? Or is it more than that? Is it about absorbing the context and contents, the inference, and the feelings behind the words?

What is Empathic Listening?

“Empathic listening”, also known as active listening or reflective listening, is often taught by experts as a structured listening and questioning process. The experts would share the appropriate sentences or words to respond in a conversation and portray those techniques as an integral part of the listening process to develop and enhance relationships with a stronger understanding of what is being conveyed, both intellectually and emotionally. Though cognitively we understand that empathic listening is useful for supporting an emotionally distressed person, we found it hard to include those right sentences or words into our own conversation because it was never part of our habit to speak like this.

I would like to be able to always know the right thing to say at the right moment, especially when someone is emotionally distressed, but I cannot. Words seem to fail me when I needed them most, and I cannot understand nor fix everything. Sometimes, I believe, words just cannot fix it. That is when I learnt that rather than worrying over the right choice of words, perhaps we could focus on sharing our time and compassion?

7 Things we can do for empathic listening

1. Be non-judgemental.

This means that you let go of your own opinions and try to look at the situation from the other person’s perspective. Acknowledge? Respect? their views and emotions. This does not mean you have to agree, but just let it be known that you are grateful for the trust that is given you.

2. Give the person your undivided attention.

This means that you give your full attention, with no distractions like computers or handphones in the way.

3. Listen carefully

What is the problem? How is he/she feeling regarding the problem? Is there hope or desperation in the voice? We can pick up so many things once we start to listen.

4. Show that you are listening through your body language.

Have you spoken to a person who is not facing you? Do you feel respected? Do you feel heard? No? I didn’t think so, and I am sure we would not want to do the same to the other party either, along with other body language that may indicate our interest or focus was elsewhere.

5. Don’t be afraid of not having a solution to his/her situation.

Sometimes, all that is needed is for the person to know that you are there, for them and with them. Your presence is important at that moment, even if the problem seems overwhelming.

6. Restate and paraphrase.

Do repeat, or paraphrase what was said to you. This helps you to process and clarify the situation, and even understand the perspective of the other person.  Remember though, to keep that non-judgemental attitude and give the person time to respond.

7. Give assurance that you will be there to support.

While the problem can seem too overwhelming to be resolved immediately, you can assure the person that you will journey alongside them.

Sometimes, being present will be evident for them to know of your care for them, that you empathise with them, and that you can be counted on to be a sympathetic sounding board for their emotions, and this could be the first step to establish the trust of someone who may be struggling with suicidal ideation. Supporting them is a journey; might be a short trip, might be a long haul. But, know this, you may have just saved a life.

Now if that doesn’t warrant a pat on your shoulder?

About the writer

Kermit knows that sometimes life may not be as kind as we hope. C. Kermit had a close brush with suicide when it had vivid image of how it may attempt suicide. Thankfully, many people supported C. Kermit then, including professionals. Today, C. Kermit continues to overcome the suicidal ideation that still comes occasionally, and wants to share its thoughts towards this topic.  

On average, there is 1 suicide per day in Singapore

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