How to Portray Empathy in a Text-Based Support Group

Have you ever tried to write a ‘get-well-soon’ letter to someone suffering from an illness? It’s not easy to offer comfort in greeting cards and you might wonder if your get-well wishes translate the empathetic gesture to those receiving the care. It seems at least the effort to gift a greeting card adds to our sincerity, however, the text can be a limiting communication of empathy.

As mental health clinicians, we present empathetic responses to our patients regularly during our face-to-face meetings. We know what hand gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice can deliver care and empathy. We pay attention to these interactive details that portray empathy for our patients. In many cases, we are emitting empathy naturally in our therapeutic work, even without intention.

What is Empathy?

Brené Brown, a renowned social worker, and researcher in the field of compassion and empathy describes 4 attributes of empathy.

  1. Perspective-taking: Being able to listen and take on the other person’s point of view.
  2. Staying out of judgment: Staying open to other’s feelings and avoiding judgment about their emotions. 
  3. Recognize emotions: Remembering what it is like to have others expressed feelings, and being able to name those emotions. 
  4. Communication: Communicating your understanding and validating their feelings, inquiring more about their emotions and experiences.

When we give others empathy, we allow them to feel, to be fully heard, and be accepted. In a support group, the facilitator’s empathetic response will cultivate compassion and holding space for each member to be fully open. Capturing the experience of each person’s emotions as it relates to your own is key in displaying empathy for both text and in person. 

How to communicate empathy in a text-based group?

To develop empathy within the text-based group is to cultivate a human-to-human connection. In our society full of advanced automation, you may have personally experienced the auto response from telecommunicators. We dismiss these automated responses because they are careless to have an emotional connection with your interests. Creating a more personal connection in a text-based group is especially important, since no one is seeing each other’s facial expressions or hearing their tone of voice. 

Facilitating a text-based group can be a challenge, as we are limited to words alone to deliver our message of compassion and empathy towards a group of people expressing emotional pain. Deep emotional connections are possible within the text-based group and there are ways to bring your empathetic presence and cultivate those deeper emotional connections with the group members.

Here are small ways to let your group members feel connected and empathized.

  • When referring to a member, use their name, to let them know you ‘see’ them, and are referring specifically to them.
  • Use language that highlights the described feeling, and check-in with the member to see if that is what they are experiencing. For example, stating ‘That sounds like a frustrating situation… Is that how you might have felt?’ or ‘It can be such an overwhelming process that you went through, how were you feeling about it?’
  • Utilize the words that the members are using to let them know that you are ‘listening’. For example, if a member states, ‘I don’t think anyone understands what I am going through’, you can state, ‘It can be discouraging to feel that no one understands what you are going through’.
  • Follow up about something that the member mentioned from previous sessions. For example, ‘Dana, you mentioned having trouble sleeping last week, how are you doing this week?’ or ‘Daniel, you expressed concern about visiting your family last week, how did it go for you?’
  • Cultivate empathy within the members by opening up a question regarding a member’s expressed emotion. For example, if a member states, ‘It’s been so difficult trying to talk to my son about this’, validate and open a question to the group by stating, ‘Jenny, it can feel difficult and stuck to talk to your son about this…  Has anyone else felt similarly when communicating with their loved ones?’ 
  • Show gratitude to the member for opening up. It’s difficult and fearsome to open up about your feelings to strangers. Be sure to encourage them to continue opening up by thanking them for their courage.
  • Notice things that are left unsaid. There are times when only a few words are exchanged through text. When you follow the flow of the conversations and expressed feelings of each member, you will notice that there might be underlying emotions that are unsaid but present in the group. You may find it appropriate to name that emotion for the group.

As the frontline workers that bring emotional healing to our community, we are all naturally gifted with empathy and compassion. Be your therapeutic self and shine your light in the text-based room of emotionally suffering people!

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