But if we’re going to be encouraging people to talk, it’s equally important that we know how to listen.
Listening is one of the most important tools we have when it comes to supporting someone with their mental health, yet it’s one of the things we often get the most wrong!
During my time as a volunteer at The Listening Place – a charity that offers face to face support for people who are feeling suicidal – I came to learn that everything I thought was me being a good listener (giving advice, solving problems) was actually everything that was getting in the way of what I was ultimately there to do, which was to LISTEN!
It takes a lot of courage for someone to open up and talk about their problems, especially if they’re young. They might be scared of what’s going to happen to them, worried about how you’ll respond and embarrassed. So it’s important that we respect that by listening without any judgment or pre-conceived ideas about their condition. Remember that what they have is a real medical condition and it doesn’t make them weak or any less of character.
A big mistake I often make is that I think I need to solve everyone’s problems in order to support them. Which is absolutely not the case! A lot of people struggling with their mental health don’t want someone to solve their problems necessarily (nor is it possible in the short-term for a lot of cases!); they just want a calm, reassuring presence to sit with them in the moment and listen to them.
It might not feel like you’re helping and I’ve certainly had sessions with people where I’ve come away thinking “I just sat there – I didn’t do anything!”. But to them, just having a space where they can talk about their problems and have someone actually listen is greatly beneficial. Don’t underestimate the power of good listening!
It’s very easy to panic when supporting someone and worry that you’re going to run out of things to say. But silence can sometimes be a good thing! More often than not, it’s just the person gathering their thoughts and figuring out how to articulate them in a way that the other person will understand. If you panic and interrupt their flow, you stop the thought dead in its tracks and miss whatever potential insight they may have had about their situation.
So try not to crowd the space; the ratio you want to try and achieve is 80/20 (80% of the time they’re talking and you’re listening, 20% of the time you’re talking). And when you are talking, it’s primarily a) to reflect back what the person has just said to help them understand and process it, and b) to ask the right questions that encourages them to keep talking.
If you do get stuck or are unsure how to keep the conversation going, a useful tool you can use is TED, which stands for “Tell me more, Explain, Describe”. For example, if someone says they’re feeling “down”, you could say “I’m sorry to hear that. Could you tell me a bit more about what you mean when you say “down”?”. Or “so that I can try and understand what it is you’re feeling, can you describe in a bit more detail what you mean when you say “down”.
So much of how we communicate is non-verbal. If you’re not giving someone your full attention, it will show in your body language and the other person will pick up on that and become closed off themselves.
Basic things to be aware of:
Try to maintain open, friendly body language. Don’t cross your arms or keep checking your phone. Try to eliminate any barriers between you as well. If you’re speaking to someone from behind a desk and there’s a laptop open, close it and put it to one side. Same with phones – put it in your pocket or on airplane mode to show that you’re give the person your full attention. There’s nothing more distracting than when someone’s trying to talk to you and your phone keeps lighting up with notifications!
Try to maintain comfortable eye contact. Don’t stare into their eyes if you can see they’re uncomfortable with it. Enough to suggest you’re listening fully, but not a piercing gaze that’s going to make them feel uneasy.
Make sure to nod occasionally and make encouraging noises like “mmm”, “uh huh” etc to let them know that you’re listening. But try not to overdo it. It can be annoying for people if you suddenly turn into a nodding robot that keeps interrupting with random noises at inappropriate places. Which feeds into my next point…
While it’s important to remember all of the above and implement it in a way that appears natural, don’t forget to be a human in the moment as well. Genuine empathy and understanding can go a long way. More so than worrying about whether or not you’ve asked them “and how does that make you feel?” for the umpteenth time!
Listening is a skill, and with enough practice you can get good at it. So for this Time To Talk Day, I encourage you to think about how you could be a better listener.
For more information on mental health, or if you know anyone in need of help, head over to The Listening Place.
Dan Licence, Mental Health & Wellbeing Coach