With so many emotions and stressors in our day it can be hard to maintain a mental balance. We at Unified Caring Association (UCA) have a special place in our hearts for mental well-being. To share the caring we have tools and resources, such as a 24 hour counseling hotline, available for our UCA members. In our research online, we have come across a wonderful TedTalk by Sangu Delle championing mental health.
What does the word “Mental” Mean
When defining the word mental, we are referring to the mind or brain. Delle brings up a definition rooted in his culture. “Growing up in West Africa, when people used the term “mental,” what came to mind was a madman with dirty, dread-locked hair, bumbling around half-naked on the streets.” This stigma came from his youth, where “normal” people do not have mental health problems.
What is astonishing is that some of the areas in the world that have the highest need for mental health support and care, have a very thin system in place with few professionals.
According to the World Health Organization, mental health is about being able to cope with the normal stressors of life; to work productively and fruitfully; and to be able to make a contribution to your community. Mental health includes our emotional, psychological and social well-being. Globally, 75 percent of all mental illness cases can be found in low-income countries. Yet most African governments invest less than one percent of their health care budget in mental health. “Nigeria, for example, is estimated to have 200 — in a country of almost 200 million. In all of Africa, 90 percent of our people lack access to treatment. As a result, we suffer in solitude, silenced by stigma.”
Mental Health Hits Close to Home
As we listen to this TedTalk, we wonder if there is a solution to the lack of care, acceptance and support for those who are affected by mental distress or illness. Delle shares the turning point for him. “For me, the stigma is personal… My best friend in the world — a brilliant, philosophical, charming, hip young man — was diagnosed with schizophrenia. I witnessed some of the friends we’d grown up with recoil. I heard the snickers. I heard the whispers. “Did you hear he has gone mad?” (Kru English) “He has gone crazy!” Derogatory, demeaning commentary about his condition — words we would never say about someone with cancer or someone with malaria. Somehow, when it comes to mental illness, our ignorance eviscerates all empathy. I stood by his side as his community isolated him, but our love never wavered.”
Our ignorance eviscerated all empathy; that phrase really hit home. We have seen and heard about so many ways that people can be bullied. One way that we can begin caring and supporting those who need mental healthcare is to bring awareness to the issue. Delle inspiringly did just that. He helped found the mental health special interest alumni group at his college. “And during my tenure as a resident tutor in graduate school, I supported many undergraduates with their mental health challenges.” Every person needs to be more aware about mental struggles. If we begin to accept mental health as important as physical health, we will become better individuals.
This awareness is not only for others, but for ourselves as well. Delle references his internal struggles, and how he could not bring himself to speak with a counselor, or even a friend. This reluctance was due to the stigma that still resided within himself. This was an eye opener for Delle. “We need to stop suffering in silence. We must stop stigmatizing disease and traumatizing the afflicted.”
Raise Awareness and Champion Mental Health
Delle calls us all to action by encouraging us to talk. “Talk to your friends. Talk to your loved ones. Talk to health professionals.” In communicating how we are feeling, we are allowing ourselves to better connect with others and ourselves. “[When talking] do so with the confidence that you are not alone. Speak up if you’re struggling. Being honest about how we feel does not make us weak; it makes us human.” We can champion others and ourselves through one common thread, we are all human and we all can take charge of having better mental health.
Would you like to watch the full TedTalk? Click HERE!
Each day we interact with friends, family, and many other people. During these interactions we often strive to make meaningful connections. There are so many ways we can connect, and one is the most prominent: talking with each other. We at Unified Caring Association (UCA) have recently seen a wonderful TedTalk by Celeste Headlee about 10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation. This is a wonderful speech that helps us understand different ways to connect with others through conversation.
The World We Live In
Celeste begins her speech talking about the shift in how we hold conversations with each other due to the integration of technology. Many people spend most of their time communicating through emails and texts. Celeste makes a good point: this world we live in has great potential but can quickly devolve into arguments. Think about how a text that is misread triggers us to feel a wide range of negative emotions. This communication trend is especially prominent in children and teens. “Pew Research did a study of 10,000 American adults, and they found that at this moment, we are more polarized, we are more divided, than we ever have been in history. We’re less likely to compromise, which means we’re not listening to each other. And we make decisions … based on what we already believe.” If we are not holding balanced conversations and listening to each other, we are losing out.
A VIP Skill-Communication
A high school teacher, named Paul Barnwell, gave his students a communication project to teach them how to speak on a specific topic without notes. It became apparent that conversational competence might be one of the most underdeveloped skills for students. This difficulty is partly due to kids spending hours each day engaging with ideas and each other through screens. Rarely do these kids have an opportunity to develop interpersonal communications skills. Barnwell asks, “Is there any 21st-century skill more important than being able to sustain coherent, confident conversation?”
How to Have a Great Conversation
Most of us have an idea of how to actively listen and participate in a conversation. Some of these tips are: look the person in the eye, think of interesting topics before you meet, smile, and repeat back a summary of what you heard for further clarification. Celeste Headlee argues that we should forget all or most of this in an effort to have not just good conversations, but great conversations. We all have had interactions that we walk away from craving more. This drive to have a longer interaction is a sign of a great conversation. These connections allow us to feel engaged and inspired, and that we are perfectly understood.Headlee has ten great tips to achieve this result almost every time you hold a conversation.
Right off the get-go, Headlee hits the ground running! We all should avoid multitasking. Juggling your “to-do” list with the argument you had with your significant other three days ago while talking with your best friend is not devoting caring time with your best friend. When we do not multitask, we are present and in the moment with the person(s) we are having a conversation with.
Next, Celeste strongly recommends not pontificating. When we pontificate we become predictable and have a harder time keeping an open mind. “You need to enter every conversation assuming that you have something to learn.” This can mean setting aside your personal opinion for the time being, allowing the speaker to have room and encouragement to open up.
Thirdly, when asking questions, use open-ended questions. Part of this technique is psychological. When we have a strong word prompt, such as terrifying, we respond to it and formulate a comment that reflects the same intensity and mood. To hold a better conversation let the speaker identify the thought and feeling. “Let them describe it. They’re the ones that know. Try asking them things like, ‘What was that like?’ ‘How did that feel?’ Because then they might have to stop for a moment and think about it, and you’re going to get a much more interesting response.”
Number four: Try to let go or go with the flow. Thoughts will appear; even if these thoughts do not relate to the conversation, let them go out of your mind. Sometimes these thoughts are lists of groceries, or a really great question we DO want to ask the person we are talking with. The issue can be that we are not actually listening, and maybe that really great question was already answered.
Five: If you don’t know an answer, admit it, and move forward. This surrender to not knowing everything helps us become more relatable to the other person we are talking with. Also, it can help us build or maintain our credibility, and hopefully strengthen our relationships. So, say that you don’t know in an effort to err on the side of caution.
Next, is an important note to remember. We do not want to equate our experience with the other person’s. Each experience and feeling is unique to the person it pertains to. We can never feel exactly the same. Think about the proverb: You can never step in the same river twice. This is true because the water is constantly flowing, and therefore never the same in any spot. “More importantly, it is not about you. You don’t need to take that moment to prove how amazing you are or how much you’ve suffered.”
Number seven: Try our hardest to not repeat yourself. The repetition can become boring to the listener, and possible condescending. Take a moment during your next conversation to count how many times you repeat yourself, and you might realize that we tend to repeat ourselves a lot.
We are coming to the home stretch of Headlee’s list. Eighth in line is advice for many situations outside and inside of conversations: try to avoid using too many facts. Most people are less interested in how many years you did “such-and-such” or the names and dates of your 20 second cousins twice removed. What truly matters to others is the genuine you; what you are like and have in common.
Ninth in line is VIP: LISTEN. Most of us equate active listening with holding a great conversation, and truly listening takes many of the state steps into account. Many successful people believe and share that listening is perhaps the most important skill that you can develop. Headlee paraphrases Buddha with pizzazz. “If your mouth is open, you’re not learning.” Why is listening so hard when it is so important? Well, it can come down to controlling the conversation through talking, especially if we are afraid. There is an additional reason: We have short attention spans (a.k.a. we get distracted, easily). On average a person talks at a rate of about 225 words per minute. However, our brains can listen to 500+ words per minute. In the 275 gaps between we tend to fill in or lose focus on the conversation. As another example, think about how quickly we lose interest in a video on Facebook or YouTube? If the content doesn’t grab us within the first 20-30 seconds, we move on. It takes a great amount of energy and effort to pay attention to someone while holding a conversation with them. Otherwise, you are just shouting monologues that might overlap with each other.
Last but not least, number 10. Celeste Headlee keeps it simple as she shares a quote from her sister: Be brief. “A good conversation is like a miniskirt; short enough to retain interest, but long enough to cover the subject.”
What is the basic concept?
What is the common thread we find in all ten of Headlee’s tips? The answer: “Be interested in other people. …assuming everyone has some hidden, amazing thing about them.” We can be amazed at all our caring community has to offer when holding truly great conversations with each other. We encourage our caring community to share the caring by connecting through conversations. And remember, caring conversations with ourselves can be a form of self-care!
Unified Caring Association (UCA) loves sharing with our caring community. The topics that we love to share often relate back to emotional intelligence. One component that is closely relates to emotional intelligence in empathy. There is just one troubling thing. We often have a hard time describing what empathy is and how we teach it to others. In our search for more information on empathy we have come across some great examples on how to bring more empathy to the world and our caring community. Let’s start from the top…
How can we define something like empathy?
In short, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of one or more people. We can take this definition a step further. We can add that we are then are able to express our feelings and connection with the others. This requires one thing, active listening with our whole being by using our eyes, ears, body language, minds, and more. This is because listening is a strong way to show that you care about the other person and the topic that they are passionate about. Brigette Hyacinth has a good point about listening, “The quality of our listening determines the quality of our influence…[and] listening transmits that kind of respect and builds trust.” (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/empathy-most-important-leadership-skill-needed-today-hyacinth/) Overall, when we listen to others and understand what they are saying when they connect with us we demonstrate that we value others and have empathy for them.
Empathy and Denmark
There have been many studies about how Denmark is one of the happiest and nicest places to live. “This is according to the UN’s World Happiness Report, an important survey that since 2012 classifies the happiness of 155 countries in the world, and that for seven years has placed Denmark among the top three happiest countries on a global level.” (https://www.morningfuture.com/en/article/2019/04/26/empathy-happiness-school-denmark/601/) A big factor in this relates back to how people in Denmark seem to value and incorporate empathy in their lives. This can be seen through the prominent concept of “hygge.” Hygge is a phenomenon closely related to Danish culture; this word is both a verb and an adjective and does not have an English equivalent. “Hygge could be defined as ‘intentionally created intimacy.’ In a country where it gets dark very early in the year, it rains, it’s gray, hygge means bringing light, warmth and friendship, creating a shared, welcoming and intimate atmosphere.” (https://www.morningfuture.com/en/article/2019/04/26/empathy-happiness-school-denmark/601/) This is a fundamental Danish concept that creates a sense of well-being. Interestingly, hygge is becoming a global phenomenon! If you search for hygge on Amazon, you will get about 6,000 results, most of which are books. Instagram has more than Amazon, with #hygge racking up 5.2 million posts and counting! SO, how does a culture foster a concept like empathy so effectively? The answer: By teaching, learning and practicing from the ground up with kids.
Danish schools have a unique curriculum incorporated in their education plans. Students 6-16 years old spend about one hour a week in school dedicated to empathy. These lessons are called “Klassen tid.” This is a fundamental part of learning life skills for these students, much like learning English, science or math for U.S. students. During this hour “…students discuss their problems, either related to school or not, and the whole class, together with the teacher, tries to find a solution based on real listening and understanding. If there are no problems to discuss, children simply spent the time together relaxing and enjoying hygge.” (https://www.morningfuture.com/en/article/2019/04/26/empathy-happiness-school-denmark/601/) This time spent on exploration, problem solving and growth of emotional intelligence helps the students connect with each other through activities that build empathy. Unlike other places in the world, there is no stigma or stress connected to this emotion. The stronger the understanding of empathy the longer and more sincere the student’s relationships are. These enduring relationships correlate to the prevention of bullying and success at work.
Empathy is a Life Skill
As we said before, empathy helps people be successful in their careers. This is because they are able to connect with their peers, are more goal oriented, and adept at team work related tasks. If we look back at Denmark, 60% of tasks in schools are teamwork based. Thus these tasks require the children to understand empathy in order to achieve good results. However, the focus of these results is not to excel over others, but to lift up your teammates that are struggling with the tasks. The success of the team is therefore the goal that everyone is striving for. It is because of the students’ skills in empathy that Denmark is often touted as one of the best places to have a career in Europe.
Empathy is then coupled with the viewpoint that competition is with yourself and not with others. Instead, Danes practice the culture of motivation to improve and the measurement is exclusively in relation to themselves. This is vastly different from the prominent mentality in the U.S. where the goal is to beat the other person and to strive for a win even if it is at the cost of your peers. “The Danes give a lot of space to children’s free play, which teaches empathy and negotiation skills. Playing in the country has been considered an educational tool since 1871.” (https://www.morningfuture.com/en/article/2019/04/26/empathy-happiness-school-denmark/601/) Most of this is achieved through collaborative learning. This style of learning involves bringing together children with various strengths and weaknesses in different subjects. The teams of students then help each other with their studies by working together on various topics and projects. This format teaches the kids that they need each other to be successful and to connect they will need empathy. Jessica Alexander comments that, “Many studies show that when you explain something to someone…you not only learn the subject much better than you would do by memorizing it yourself, but you also build empathy skills which are further strengthened by having to be careful about the way the other person receives the information, and having to put oneself in their shoes to understand how learning works.” (https://www.morningfuture.com/en/article/2019/04/26/empathy-happiness-school-denmark/601/)
The results are echoed by Avery Konda, who recently tried to explain the concept of empathy to kids. After trying to talk with children and pull out responses from them (which fell short of what he was looking for), he began to play with the kids. Through this play time with toys he helped the children discover deeper meanings of empathy. Konda concluded, “Students learn more from gamified activities that allow them to learn skills through application, more than they do through PowerPoints and traditional teaching…[They] take away more when they’re required to live and breathe the topic of conversation.” (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-empathy-most-important-skill-world-today-avery-konda/?trackingId=ltUkZUWiNiFJLSRQ45YbyA%3D%3D) This is fascinating for all of us who are trying to excel in our careers, and for those that are raising children. If we all strive to listen closely to conversations with others and practice our teamwork skills, we can begin to strengthen our empathy skills. Building empathy takes time and consistent practice. If we look at how Danish culture has developed, we can begin to apply more empathy to our daily lives and continue to create a more caring world.