Menu

4 Using empathy and kindness to help others

Take the chapter quiz before and after you read this chapter.

Open chapter quiz

Close quiz

First time? Register for free. Just enter your email or cell number and create a password.

Close quiz

Contents

Objectives

When you have completed this chapter you should be able to:

  1. Explain why keeping calm is important when helping others.
  2. Use S.T.O.P. to calm ourselves.
  3. Help others to keep calm and feel safe.
  4. Use grounding to help people move away from a very emotional state.
  5. Use practical ways to help isolated people to feel connected.
  6. Explain why peer group meetings are helpful in supporting colleagues.
  7. Manage a peer group meeting.

The importance of keeping calm

4-1 Who needs to be calm and kind when helping others?

Care workers, parents, teachers and mentors. Those who work with children, adolescents and vulnerable people need to be calm and kind so they can help others to also feel calm and safe. This can be difficult, but is a big part of providing empathetic care and helping others.

Being calm and kind is an important part of empathetic care.

4-2 What is the right motivation to help others?

We must want to help others, or it will not be possible to be kind or empathic. We should focus on being kind and helpful, rather than on the outcome. We need to focus on the needs of the person we want to help, and not on what we expect or want to happen. Our wanting to help and our kindness must not change when others behave in ways we do not like. We should try to accept others just as they are and try to understand what they need. This shows respect.

4-3 Why is being calm the best way to help others?

Care workers spend a lot of time with people who need help, as well as with those who feel weak, uncertain or afraid. When we show respect and we are calm, we help others to feel safe and relaxed. This helps the person and also makes our work much easier. When we are not calm and aware, we more easily ‘catch’ feelings from those who are behaving badly or who are angry or anxious. Vulnerable people ‘catch’ the emotions of others quickly (feeling empathy). If we are rude or unkind, we make things worse. If we are calm, we will calm them, and we will all be able to think more clearly.

Being calm when others are frightened or restless is the best way to help them.

4-4 How does being calm help with thinking?

Imagine a small river or pool of water. When the water is moving fast or is being stirred up by strong winds, it is not possible to see to the bottom. When the water is calm, things settle at the bottom and the water becomes clear. Then it is possible to see through the water. Our minds are like pools of water. If we are calm, emotions settle and it is easier to think clearly.

Keeping ourselves calm

4-5 How can we become calm?

Care workers need to be more calm than other people. This can be difficult because we are influenced by emotions, just like other people. We must try our best to become more aware and mindful. This is easier when we understand about self-care and practise it every day. It also helps if we feel connected to others and can share stories with people who face the same challenges. Remember to be kind to yourself when we notice something we don’t like. We can try to S.T.O.P. when our mind feels restless or unsettled.

4-6 What does S.T.O.P. mean?

S.T.O.P. is a reminder to calm down and a way to practise mindfulness at work:

We should practise the four steps of S.T.O.P. to become calm and mindful.

Helping others to keep calm

4-7 Are there other ways to help people feel safe?

When people feel welcome and respected, we start to feel safer and more at ease. Care providers must find out what others need before we can know if or how we can help them. This can be difficult to do with babies. Mothers often quickly learn to understand their own babies’ needs. With older children, adolescents and adults, we can use empathic communication (thinking empathy) to try to understand their needs. This must start with us. There are other ways to calm babies, young children and adolescents.

4-8 How can we help calm babies and young children?

Babies and young children should not feel frightened for long as this is harmful for their growing brains. Young children can’t be naughty and when babies and young children are crying and frightened, they must be comforted with kindness. Check for physical causes first. Speak in a slow, gentle and calm voice. Gentle sounds and singing helps, especially if the mother sang the same tunes during pregnancy. Use slow, rhythmic movement like rocking or patting. Older children start to feel calmer if they are encouraged to clap, hum, laugh or stamp their feet in a slow rhythm until the strong emotion has passed.

A slow, gentle voice and rhythmic movements can be used to calm a baby or young child.

4-9 How does this help?

Before birth, babies feel safe inside the womb. Their mother is always close, voices are soft, and they can feel the rhythm of mother’s heartbeat while being rocked by the movement of her body. We can calm babies and frightened children by keeping them close to us and making sure our voices are quiet while we provide gentle, rhythmic movement. Be calm, stay close.

4-10 How can we help adolescents to calm down?

Adolescents also experience strong emotions which they may find frightening. Strong emotions and fear can make older children and adolescents behave badly. Be calm, stay close. Sometimes it is better to sit quietly at first, not saying anything. When we feel calm, we can start to talk using a slow, gentle voice. We can try gently and slowly clapping our hands, or slowly patting the adolescent’s arm as we talk, or stroking their head.

4-11 Should we ignore bad behaviour in adolescents?

No. Bad behaviour, especially if people or animals are harmed and things are broken, is never acceptable. We must always focus on the reason for the behaviour first. No one can think clearly during strong emotions. Shouting, threatening and hitting make things worse. Shouting at someone to calm down is a waste of time and makes things worse. When everyone is calm, we can talk about any bad behaviour and set clear boundaries.

Adolescents can try to manage stress by dancing to loud music, going for a run, playing a drum, or even chopping wood. Anything which is rhythmic will help bring calm.

4-12 Is there anything else we can do to help calm older children and adolescents?

Yes. We can try grounding. Grounding means we help people move out of the emotion and back to their body, using the senses. We must be calm and stay close. Tell the adolescent to look around and name five things they can see. When they have done this, ask them to name four things they can hear, three things they can smell, two things they can feel and one thing they can taste. We can use this same exercise to calm ourselves and others who are very anxious.

Grounding is a useful method to help people move away from a very emotional state.

4-13 How does grounding work?

When people are feeling very anxious, or when they are thinking about a frightening experience, they may get stuck into a pattern of thinking. This pattern of thinking is usually remembering the past, or worrying about the future. Grounding helps distract us from these thoughts and brings our thinking back to where we are now. Being able to come back to the present helps us to calm down, as our senses show we are in a safe space.

Helping others to feel connected

4-14 How can we help others when it is not possible to be physically close?

It is stressful for everyone, but especially young and old people, to be separated from those they care about. This can cause emotional problems during times of separation, being in hospital, or during COVID-19 lockdown. When we cannot be physically close, hearing kind voices and seeing friendly faces are very important to people who feel alone and frightened. We can try our best to help isolated people by showing them we care and have not forgotten about them. Encourage the person to laugh when you talk, or take some long, slow in and out breaths together so that the body knows it is time to relax. We can show we remember them in small meaningful ways, for example, by sending them a treat or making and delivering their favourite food.

A kind voice and friendly face help people who are isolated from their loved ones.

4-15 What practical ideas can help people feel connected?

Photographs and special things which remind isolated people they are not alone are helpful. If possible, we should make time for video calls, or send photographs of family and friends. We can phone and talk in a slow, calm, relaxed, friendly voice, laugh with the person or we can send regular messages or special photographs with reminders of happier times.

Managing peer group meetings

4-16 How can peer support groups help?

Connecting with other people who experience the same stress as they do gives an important sense of belonging. Peers are people who share a common interest or face the same challenges. Peer support groups are safe spaces where peers meet to support each other. They are a very effective way to help manage stress. It doesn’t change the stress, but it helps people to experience it differently, and to realise that they are not alone. Feeling that we belong quickly makes us feel safe and able to relax. This is one reason why family is important. New mothers, teenage mothers, children, adolescents and care provider peer groups all help in the same way. We need to feel calm and relaxed before we are able to learn from each other. When we hear people talking about fears and struggles that are similar to our own, we also start to feel more confident and positive about work and our own lives.

Peer groups create a safe space where people can share common experiences and learn from each other.

4-17 Why do peer groups need empathic communication skills?

Peer groups are motivated by the need to help each other. At group meetings, we try to be kind, non-judgemental and affirming of each other. The aim is for everyone to feel safe, connected and heard. Group members share their stress, while others listen. We do not need to fix anything or rescue anyone. We just need to be willing to listen to others. Peer groups need a group leader to make sure members are fair, kind and empathic.

4-18 What is a peer group leader?

A peer group leader is not a teacher. The group leader is someone who facilitates and manages the group, and who makes sure everyone in the group is treated fairly. A group leader should be able to listen and make others feel safe. A good group leader is calm and relaxed and tries to make sure everyone benefits from group meetings.

4-19 What makes a good peer group leader?

The peer group leader does not have to be a supervisor or manager, but rather someone who is trusted by the members of the group, and who is able to organise and remind members about meetings. The group leader must be calm, respectful and able to listen empathically.

A good peer group leader stays calm and respectful and able to listen to others.

4-20 What makes it easier for the group leader to stay calm?

It can be difficult for the group leader to stay calm, but this is needed so the group can feel safe and benefit. One way is for the group leader to be well prepared. It is not possible to control what happens at meetings, but this doesn’t mean we should not prepare. It is much easier to manage the group and stay calm when we feel prepared.

4-21 What must the group leader organise?

Meetings should be regular and take place in the same venue. The group leader needs to make sure this happens. We all feel safer when we know what to expect. Try not to have surprises, and try to make sure meetings start and end on time.

A group leader should arrange a suitable time and venue for meetings.

4-22 Why is the first group meeting important even if not much is done?

The first meeting for any peer group is very important. First meetings are for letting people understand what the group is about. They also lay the foundation for feeling safe in future meetings. It can be very helpful to ground people during the first meeting. We can introduce certain routines and sensory stimuli which, when repeated at future meetings, help people to quickly feel welcome and safe. For example, if a poster made at the first meeting, can be stuck on the wall at the next few meetings. This will remind the group about the first meeting, without anyone having to say anything. The group can decide on a ritual or routine for the start of every meeting. Set up the venue and chairs in the same way every meeting or use friendly smells (vanilla essence, candles, incense), food, music, or anything which is easy to repeat at every meeting and which will help people settle.

4-23 What are other ways to make the group feel safe quickly?

Always start on time. It can be useful to start the group with a relaxation activity. Choose one of the activities described earlier, like singing, dancing, shaking or clapping. Starting this way makes it easier for anyone who is a little late. Feeling connected helps group members to share and listen to each other at the start of the meeting. This can be very difficult in a large group, but easier when people break up into smaller groups for sharing activities.

4-24 What size groups are best?

Small groups of between three and six people give everyone a chance to talk and listen to each other. Once everyone has had a turn in the small group, get a few people from each small group to give feedback to the whole group. Doing this will keep the large group connected. Feedback to the whole group gives the small groups time to reflect on what was said, and allows everyone to get a sense of what was discussed in the smaller groups. It’s not important to share all the stories or break confidence as only the important messages need to be shared. Reflection also gives us time to think and gives a deeper understanding of our shared struggles.

Small groups work better than large groups as they allow everyone to participate.

4-25 What is the best way to end a meeting?

Human minds have a negative bias. This means we remember bad things more often than we remember good things. Someone can tell us about nine things they really like about us, and one thing they don’t like. We will remember the one negative thing and quickly forget all the good things. We can change this by getting into a habit of thinking about the positive things in our lives. People will leave the group feeling keen to return if we end the meeting by asking some people to share something they are grateful for. It is also helpful to make as many plans as possible for the next meeting.

It is very helpful to end a meeting with gratitude.

4-26 What does it mean to share gratitude?

We share gratitude when we give thanks for the good things. We can do this as individuals using a journal, or we can share gratitude with our family at the end of each day. We can also do it at the end of peer meetings. Try to think of three things to be grateful for. They don’t have to be something big. For example, we may mention being grateful for being able to share our stories, being grateful to have meaningful work, and being grateful to have kind and supportive peers.

Case study

Thembakazi works as a mentor mother. Her job is to encourage new mothers to breastfeed. Thembakazi’s work performance is judged on how many mothers breastfeed. Nosipho is a young mother with depression, she does not want to breastfeed because she says her milk is bad.

1. How best can Thembakazi manage this situation?

It will be difficult if Thembakazi is only worried about her work performance. This means she doesn’t really want to understand the young mother, she is focused on the outcome. Thembakazi needs to be calm and kind. She must use thinking empathy to try and understand why this young mother thinks her milk is bad.

At the peer group meeting Thembakazi tells everyone about this case. She says that she shouted at the young mother, because she was worried her supervisor would shout at her. She says the young mother has not come back and is lost to follow up.

2. How can this problem be managed in the peer group meeting?

When people in the group are sharing stressful situations, we must be careful not to shame them in front of everyone, or they will not want to share again. We can affirm Thembakazi for having the courage to share her story. We can use empathic communication and open questioning to find out more about the situation. This will help Thembakazi and everyone in the group to understand and learn from what happened. With kindness everyone can try to be kinder if this happens again.

Job performance should never be judged on things which Thembakazi is unable to control.