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How To Cultivate An Organization Built On Empathy

Crisis Text Line helps people facing mental health emergencies—and the strategies they use can help you create an organization that encourages self-care and empathy.

How To Cultivate An Organization Built On Empathy

[Photos: Estefany Molina for Fast Company]

In three years, volunteer counselors at Crisis Text Line—an organization that offers 24-7 counseling via text messages—have exchanged 24 million messages with people facing mental health emergencies, ranging from anxiety to suicidal thoughts.

That means its 2,000 crisis counselors go through a lot themselves.

At Fast Company’s Innovation Festival, Hira Raja, a staff trainer who works with all of the volunteers, gave a lesson in how she teaches counselors to listen with empathy—and how Crisis Text Line as an organization bakes empathy and self-care into its mission. The tips shared are applicable not only to crisis situations, but to any workplace where the environment can be stressful (i.e. pretty much any workplace).

Know The Difference Between Empathy And Sympathy

"Sympathy and empathy are sometimes used interchangeably. But i think the main difference between the two is that how you reach to that situation—do you jump in full-force...and say let me help you—or do you step back and say I know this is tough situation but maybe lets tweak it this way?," Raja says. That’s an important part of the training she offers to volunteers.

In other words, when a colleague or an employee is struggling, don’t jump to offer advice on what they should or shouldn’t do—listen to their needs and do what you can to put yourself in their position. At any cost, avoid starting a sentence with "at least"—as in, "I know you’re stressed, but at least you don’t have as much work as John." That helps no one, she says.

Practice Active Listening

"Listening to listen and not listening to speak is very important here," says Raja. Active listening is a way to make sure your colleagues or employees know that you’re really focused on their problems.

When a colleague comes to tell you they are overwhelmed, actively listening to them might involve several strategies: 1) reflecting their thoughts in your own words, 2) Identifying feelings around the situation, such as anxiety, 3) Empower their positive behavior, such as recognizing their bravery for sharing their feelings, 4) Asking open-ended questions, 5) Validating their thoughts and feelings, by explaining it’s normal. Finally, if you would want to offer advice, it shouldn’t be prescriptive from your perspective, but rather help them understand what action they want to take. "The key takeaway is that the individual is the expert in their life. They know what’s best for them."

If we all actively listened, those office meetings where everyone is just waiting for their chance to jump in and talk would be very different.

Make Self-Care A Priority Baked Into Your Organization

In an interview before the Innovation Festival, Crisis Text Line CEO Nancy Lublin explained there are three ways she sure self-care is an important part of the Crisis Text Line platform.

"One is to set expectations from the beginning that this is a workplace or an environment that values self-care and your own mental health. Two is that people and the processes are in place...and then the third is you need a structure to actually make the time or the space to value this."

In practice, that means Crisis Text Line asks all volunteers to assess their own mental health in their application, and then in training, they talk about self care habits and have a code of conduct which includes a commitment to self-care on and off the platform. There’s also a peer support group and the opportunity to reach out to a supervisor for support. But every time a crisis counselor faces an "active rescue"—i.e. if they have to call 911 because someone is at risk for suicide or homicide—a supervisor reaches out to them for a mental health check.

"It’s one thing to say say all those things, and another to actually have to do them," Lublin says.

This may be a more dramatic situation than the average workplace experiences, but it’s not a bad strategy for all kinds of organizations to consider.

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