Empathic Communication a viable tool in suicide prevention

By The Caribbean Voice

The Caribbean Voice is a New York-based NGO that has been involved in social activism since its launch in 1998. Currently it is focusing on suicide prevention and related issues in Guyana and the Diaspora and is working in collaboration with partners – other NGOs, businesses, socially conscious individuals, the media and various ministries in Guyana. Contact us at 621-6111 or 223-2637 or via email at bibiahamad1@hotmail. com or  caribvoice@aol.com. Check out our website at www.caribvoice.org

As parents and teenagers usually do, a young lady had an argument with her mother.  When the mother proceeded to verbally abuse her daughter, as far too many mothers do, the daughter angrily exclaimed “Me feel fuh tek wan dose poison”.

The outraged mother responded, “Wait deh me go bring am”.

The reality is that any communication between parents and their children can be difficult, but when those children become teenagers, the potential for miscommunication increases greatly. Parents are often bewildered by the sudden changes in their kids and the techniques and communication style that may have worked well before falter in the face of sullen, defiant or indifferent teens.

Natural tension between parents and children is usually the result of the clash between parents’ desire for the safety, protection, and success of their children, and maturing teenagers’ desire for freedom, autonomy, and being treated as grown-ups. As kids grow from six to sixteen, the skills required for successful parenting change a great deal. But, it is absolutely possible for parents and teens to learn skills that will improve their communication even when the situation or topic is new or difficult although the challenges may seem mountainous.

The key to effective communication with children and teenagers is to listen, “really listen”. Parents must talk with children and not talk at them. Of course there are boundaries but parents must know when to pull and when to push. There are benefits, and most of all, joy in becoming friends with one’s children.

Therefore, what is really needed in our current climate is Empathic Communication. Given the fact that we are now the at the top of the chart globally as it relates to Suicide and Suicide ideations, and right up there with respect to various forms of abuse, there is no better time to look at what is needed and or what is lacking.

The term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. ‘Emotion researchers’ generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. Empathic communication is a great way to defuse anger, create scope for dialogue and problem solving and allow for mutual respect, understanding and trust. It enables each partner in a relationship to self-express in a context free from fear, threats and eventual violence.

Empathic communication is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding and trust. It enables the listener to receive and accurately interpret the speaker’s message/words, and then provide an appropriate, non-threatening, affirming response. Through empathetic communication the listener lets the speaker know, “I understand your problem and how you feel about it. I am interested in what you are saying and I am not judging you.” The effects include building of trust and respect; reduction of tension/conflict; free exchange of information and a safe environment that is conducive to collaborative problem solving.

In using empathic communication the listener must be attentive, interested, alert and strive to create a positive atmosphere through nonverbal behaviour so that the speaker is neither afraid nor hesitant in communication. The listener must not discount the speaker’s feeling, interrupt the speaker unnecessarily, constantly give advice or lecture the person, criticize or condemn, but must display understanding and sympathy and let the speaker know that together the issues will be addressed.

Most important for parents, is learning to listen effectively rather than talking at teenagers. Lecturing actually doesn’t work well with anyone, and teens tend to explode or shut down. A common misconception parents and teens share is that listening means agreeing. Both parties are given a chance to argue their points of view and eventually come to a worthy compromise. On the contrary, listening opens connection and can lead to successful problem solving.

Almost everyone, including teenagers, responds to genuine interest and curiosity. So if parents show that they want to hear their children’s perspective, ask open-ended questions and listen carefully to the responses, if parents can be fully in the moment and not plan their next responses, teens are often very responsive and open. Teenagers especially have the ability to assert their feelings and if this is stifled by parents’ constant harping about “knowing better and being right” then teenagers will find others to talk to, persons who may have the best intentions but may well be peers facing the same challenges, thereby worsening the situation.

Another transformative technique is learning how to walk away from triggers and hot buttons once they become evident.  Both adults and teens can make comments, that send each other “through the roof”, and hinder any real discussion. Slowing down responses, even taking a time out, recognizing triggers, can help teens and adults respond from a saner, less reactive space. So too, avoiding these common forms of communication that block empathy:

  1. Giving Advice/Fixing: Tell the other person what you think they should do. “I think you should leave your boyfriend and find somebody else to be with.”
  2. Analyzing: Interpreting or evaluating a person’s behaviour. “I think you are taking this out on your ex-wife when you are actually frustrated about your divorce.”
  3. Storytelling: Moving the focus away from the other and back to your own experience. “I know just how you feel. This reminds me of a time that I…”
  4. Sympathy: Either feeling sorry for other, or sharing my own feelings about what they said. “Oh, you poor thing… I feel so sad for you.”
  5. Reassuring / Consoling: Trying to make the person “feel better” by telling them things will improve. “You might be upset now, but I’m sure you will feel better soon.”
  6. Shutting Down: Discounting a person’s feelings and trying to shift them in another direction. “Quit feeling sorry for yourself,” or, “There is no reason to feel that way!”
  7. Correcting: Giving the person your opinion or belief about a situation. “Wait a minute – I never said that!” or, “You don’t remember this accurately.”
  8. Interrogating: Using questions to ‘figure out’ or change the person’s behaviour. “When did this begin?” or, “Why did you decide to do that?” or, “What got into you?”
  9. Commiserating: Agreeing with the speaker’s judgments of others. “I know what you mean – your cousin is one of the biggest jerks I have ever met!”
  10. One-upping: Convincing the speaker that whatever they went through, you had it worse. “You think that’s bad? Let me tell you what happened to me when I was in that situation!”

Parents can’t communicate with their teens lovingly and clearly if they don’t know how. That’s why workshops, coaching sessions, and mediations which help parents and teens learn and practice these techniques are so important. Once parents learn the basic skills, they can begin to apply them to the hard issues they and their teens are facing and prevent any possibility of suicide.

When children feel that they are supported to communicate, they develop natural coping skills, that, regardless of life’s ordeals, can enable and empower them to develop self-esteem and forge ahead with self -confidence.

Far too often the language used has driven loved ones to acts of violence, especially suicide. It is time for Guyanese to realize that the right communication is so essential to protecting and fostering relationships and to ensuring that no one is driven to suicide. Whatever the issue, it must be dealt with in an atmosphere of care, concern, understanding and forgiveness.

Given that the 15 to 25 age group has the highest suicide rate in Guyana and that this age group also is significantly affected by teenage pregnancy, rape, incest, increasing alcohol and drug use and physical and verbal abuse, it is critical that parents relearn use of language that would not alienate their teenagers, make them feel unloved and unwanted, make them act in anger and/or haste or make them feel, alone and lonely.

And while parents can and must draw on their own experiences as teenagers to better understand their own teens, they should not impose their views about how things should be, on their teenagers, since the issues parents faced when they were growing up and the environment of that time are not quite the same as what exists today. Most importantly, parents need to feel any pain and agony their children suffer and let them know that with their parents’ love, care and help things will get better, no matter what leads to the pain and agony. With respect to relationships, especially if pregnancy is involved, parents must reach out for assistance to ensure that their teenagers are safe.

The bottom line is that everyone makes mistakes as part of the growing up process. In fact even adults continue to make mistakes. So when teens make mistakes, parents and loved ones must understand that it’s not the end of the world. Life goes on and parents must first help their teenagers deal with the consequences of mistakes made, then help them learn from those mistakes and move on in life. And, when necessary, parents must reach for assistance if they feel that they are not fully capable of providing the help needed by their teenagers.

In effect, when that teenager stated that she felt like taking a dose of poison, the mother should have taken a deep breath, rush to hug her daughter and lovingly caution her to never ever say something like that again. A follow up, “do you know how much we love you” would also have been the right words to add.

Meanwhile The Caribbean Voice and its partners strongly recommend that a module in empathetic communication be included at the Teachers’ Training College, be offered as an in-service programme for all current teachers, for all who man the social issues landscape, for all security personnel and all healthcare workers. The cost for doing this is negligible whereas the benefits would be immeasurable.

Finally we urge everyone to make full use of the suicide hotline through its various outlets: Landlines: 223-0001, 223-0009, 600-7896, 623-4444.  What’s App: 600-7896 or 623-4444. Cell: 600-7896, 623-4444. Email: guyagency@yahoo. com. Bbm pin: 2BE55649, 2BE56020. Twitter: @guyanaagency.

As well The Caribbean Voice can be contacted via email: caribvoice@aol.com; phone: 718-542-4454 (North America) or 644 1152, 646 4669 (Guyana). Log on to our website www.caribvoice.org or contact any of our members us via Facebook.

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