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Skip past the situation and find the emotion behind it.

My time spent living without an address, taught me about two of the most intrinsic and powerful human conditions: apathy and empathy. One leads to hope and the other to hopelessness. A person can see someone down and out, emotionally upset, distressed, a shade of the person they once were and walk straight past them as if it’s not their problem. They can only see and/or judge the circumstances that led to someone’s sad and difficult situation, and are unable to relate to how they possibly could have fallen so far.

Empathy on the other hand is the ability to feel sensitivity to what that person is going through. Seeing their pain connects you to a time you felt pain and you want to do anything in your power to support them, to offer a hand or be there for that person. Just as you remember that’s what you desperately needed in your hour of need too. You don’t need to know or understand their circumstances: you just know that they are in pain.

In my experiences in this field and travels around the world, we seem to have an uncanny knack to offer apathy when we see someone visibly struggling and can walk past and say it’s not our problem. Often believing that we don’t have the skill set to help, that maybe it’s none of our business, or perhaps we feel scared to prompt someone with the simple question, “Are you okay? Is there something wrong?”

Unfortunately for one reason or another, many people display a lot of apathy and yet as human beings there is nothing to suggest we are born with it. We’ve all felt pain at some point in our life and this shared experience is the catalyst for change. Anyone can learn the power that comes from connecting—not to the circumstances of someone down and out on the street or to an addict that’s lost everything they have—but connecting to the emotion of a person’s current state of pain or crises, feeling empathy for their overwhelming feeling of hopelessness.

This is the synergy that makes every moment interacting with a loved one or stranger so powerful. The ability to sense other people’s emotions, paired with the ability to imagine just what someone else might be going through, not related to the circumstance—but to the emotion.

This can feel daunting and people shy away from doing it, but if we don’t do it, that person can then fall through the gaps and when it’s all too late, we are left to wonder why.

Many people only look for one sign or one symptom, they say, “But they were never upset.” We need to pull apart the signs and symptoms for everyone we care about, and understand that signs of struggle manifest in many ways. Is it closed doors? Are they reticent or distant? Haven’t shaved or showered as regularly as usual? Stopped going to places they used to love? Haven’t been playing at their usual level? Short text responses or eye contact non-existent? Or maybe it’s sudden inexplicable happiness? The truth is we understand what the visible and behavioural indicators

are, but we are still seeing people fall. Whatever it is, you’re more likely to figure it out if you establish a rock solid connection where they can be who they really are in front of you.

Where their relationship with you provides enough comfort for them to strip back and be who they truly are rather than showing up as someone they are not, in order to protect you.

When you’re pulling your hair out trying to figure out why they’re struggling, or asking yourself what were they thinking (there’s a big chance they couldn’t think clearly) remember it’s not the cause of the pain that matters; it’s the emotion itself. The cause of the emotion is different for different people, but the emotion is universal and that is how we can relate and connect. 

Connecting to the emotion doesn’t come naturally for everyone yet the interaction is simple, imperative and universal. I call it Holding Space and it’s a powerful way to show someone your concern is real and let them feel the comfort of your compassion.

Allowing others to be heard

1. The Reflex Head Nod

This is the nod that reassuringly goes up and down numerous times, the one that shows: I have no idea what Matt’s talking about right now but if I nod my head in the right timing, he will know I’m listening. This gives the person speaking an indicator that what is being said is being fully acknowledged whether it is understood or not.

2. Listening

Listening with no intent to reply, to judge, to criticise, no comparisons, no advice, no need for answers. Let them talk to you to get the thoughts, feelings and emotions off their chest without being stopped in any way.

If you interpose, even with good intentions, that person may hear something that suppresses their feeling back down, again unwilling to share out of fear of judgement, even unintentional judgement.

Every time we disrupt the moment with our own response we unintentionally cut off what might have been said, had we not interrupted. Those words may never come up again. With every bit of information we receive, we can interpret and help with. We can’t with information that is suppressed. As I say more than once, we are only as good as the information we have at the moment we need it; our role is to receive as much information as possible.

3. Eye Contact is imperative

Not looking at your phone, not looking at the sky or random things close by. Doing these things shows: I don’t care enough about you to listen properly. External surroundings fall into the background as you look into their eyes. Fiddling with something while they are talking also says: This conversation is way too difficult for me to be in. The other person feels that recoil and that discomfort. They need to see the reflection of their own eyes in your eyes to know you hear their pain and feel empathy for them.

Even if you’ve never been in the same situation, eye contact says you connect with their pain. If you’ve never experienced cancer for example, you don’t have to think therefore you’re no good in that conversation. Instead, remember your own pain you have been through and think: I can show up for this person, in the same way I needed someone to show up for me in the past.

Eye contact can always be tapered off to prevent the other person from feeling intimidated, however it needs to be done in the right moments. Avoiding eye contact because you feel uncomfortable is the prime way to show someone that you are more worried about how you feel than the person who is trying to share.

When we share we soon realise that we all go through similar things and it’s a beautiful comfort to know this. It gives us a change of perception, from looking at something from its lowest point, when we think we’re alone in it and have no view of the horizon to better places. Hearing the words of other people’s struggle and story out of it; lifts us up to a higher perspective where we see hope and possibilities.

Give it a try in your next interaction, feel what you feel & notice what you notice.


Matt Runnalls

CEO- Mindfull Australia

If you would like to understand or read more about medication, therapy and the tools to create your own blueprint to wellness, you can find them all in my book. #1 Amazon best seller – Nobody Can Save Me.

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