Tips for Offering Empathic Support

Empathy, unlike sympathy, is the act of trying to understand the feelings, thoughts and experience of another person. Empathy can sometimes feel uncomfortable as it may put you in a vulnerable place, sitting with someone else’s pain, not trying to fix them or their situation. For many of us, especially those who are used to being problem solvers, empathy can seem counterintuitive. Also, we often try to help people by recounting our own personal struggles in the hope that they might benefit from our experiences and triumphs. However, to be truly empathic, you must never make the conversation about you – it’s about them.

Ultimately just being present is sometimes the most effective way to help someone come to good and safe help-seeking decisions on their own. The following are things to remember when offering empathic support to others:

  • Be able to identify why you are concerned for them. You could say “I have noticed your behavior” and be specific about these behaviors so they know you have really seen them.
  • Continue to let them know that they are not alone (don’t disrespect their boundaries; just keep checking in with them). If they do not decide to open up to you about their problems, then reflect the following messages in your response to them:
    • I am here with you (I am in this moment with you and understand that you are hurting)
    • I hear you (I have listened to what you are telling me about your experiences and emotions)
    • I accept you (your feelings are real and I will not disrespect them by trying to convince you otherwise)
    • I want to know what this is like for you (I want to understand you as best as I can)
    • I care about you (as my friend/peer you deserve my concern and compassion)
    • I will stay with you as needed (for as long as it takes to get you to safety or help)
  • Professional help is available on campus (know how to access your campus health/counseling center)
  • Emotions can change – try to connect them to professional help in the moment because an emotional crisis can be experienced in a short quick burst and then be over (people are more responsive to going for help when they feel acuity of their situation)
  • Pain is relievable – they need to have hope (let them know that this is how the body is designed to work – they need to believe it is possible to feel better)

It is important to remember to initiate empathic, supportive conversations when you have adequate time to stay with the person you are trying to help and finish any conversation you start. It is equally important to initiate the conversation in a setting that allows for privacy with minimal interruptions.


CollegeSOS is a program of Screening for Mental Health, Inc.