Empathy is always an integral part of the work we do at AVFTI. Whether we are hearing somebody’s story in person or online, we want to make sure we have the best response we can to someone as they become very vulnerable.
Our volunteers go through a special empathy section of their training to encourage them to be sensitive to a storyteller’s needs and feelings. They want to validate them as much as they can. But if you aren’t a volunteer with us, it is still extremely important to practice empathetic behaviors on our website.
In a way, empathy cannot be taught to a person. We can remind you to use your best behavior, but it ultimately is left to a person’s instinct whether or not they will pick up on this each time. However, when I struggle with a loss for words, there are three A’s that remind me how to say what I want to say.
This is the part before you talk. Align with the storyteller’s words. Let them tell you what has happened. To align is to listen to a storytellers’ experience and walk with them through their journey. Imagine your thoughts and feelings if you were in the scenario they are describing. This allows you to take the perspective of the storyteller, which is one of the strongest qualities of empathy. This will clear your mind of judgement and make way for a well fostered connection.
Recognizing their experiences and emotions is a great step to validating that storyteller. Acknowledging them for their strength and bravery to even tell the story they are is a huge part of what we do. Acknowledge that they have struggled, acknowledge their feelings, acknowledge your own feelings as well. Don’t just say “man, that’s rough”, give your response a little more thought and a little more connection to the person standing (or typing) in front of you. You do not have to fix a situation, you do not have to say the absolute perfect thing. Rarely do people tell stories on their site asking for us to fix it completely. Most of the time, they are looking to connect with someone who might have an idea of where they are emotionally.
Assuring someone that you are glad they can share their story puts courage back into the built connection. A simple “thank you for sharing” or “we are here if you need to talk” or “you are not alone” can go a long way. At the end of every response, assure the storyteller in some way. Don’t backpedal and try to place a silver lining or a fix it all type response. No “at least”s. Simply add one statement of assurance in to the end of your response.
This isn’t some kind of formula to apply like a recipe to every story we receive on the website. One of empathy’s greatest characteristics is that it ebbs and flows with each situation. You don’t have to have all the right words to say, no one is expecting you to. These three A’s are just ways to make sure your responses foster connection and healing in the important work we all do.