I think for the most part we get it now, right? “Mental Health” is one of those words that’s crept into our vocabulary like “furlough” in 2020 or “train strikes” in 2023 (and most likely 2024/2025 as well! 😩).
We understand now that mental health issues are a very real problem that people experience. Particularly young people in education who are experiencing incredible levels of stress and anxiety at an age where they may not be equipped to manage those levels of stress and anxiety ✅.
We also understand that one of best tools we have in order for that person to get appropriate support at a sufficiently early age is the ability for them to talk openly and honestly about the issues they’re experiencing ✅.
But do we know how to respond when a young person has the courage to tell us that they’re struggling with their mental health?
Or is what we think of as being helpful and supportive actually getting in the way of what’s really important – which is simply to LISTEN!
LISTENING is one of the most important skills 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!
So for World Mental Health Day, I am going to be sharing five top tips for how to be a better listener:
1) Listen non-judgmentally
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, embarrassed etc. 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.
2) Don’t try and solve their problems
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 literally just sat there nodding – I didn’t do anything!”. But to them, having a space where they can talk about their problems and have someone listen is greatly beneficial. Don’t underestimate the power of good listening!
3) Get comfortable with silence
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 what they are thinking/feeling 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 they’ve just said to help them understand and process it. And b) to ask the right questions that will encourage 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. This 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 I can try and understand what you’re feeling; can you describe in a bit more detail what you mean when you say “down”?
4) Be aware of body language
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. The other person will pick up on that and become closed off themselves.
So basic things to be aware of:
Body language: Try to maintain open, friendly body language. Don’t cross your arms or keeping checking your phone etc. 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. Show that you’re giving 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!
Eye contact: 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.
Gestures/mannerisms: Make sure to nod occasionally and make encouraging noises like “mmm” and “uh huh” to show 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…
5) Be genuine!
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 World Mental Health Day 2023, I encourage you to think about how you could be a better listener.