When we hear someone is unwell or feeling troubled, we often feel very sympathetic and concerned. We want to do something to help but feel very uncertain.
What shall we say?
What can we do?
What if we say the wrong thing?
These are the questions we might ask ourselves. Unfortunately this means that we tend to avoid people just at the time when they need us most.
Here are ten ways of listening attentively:
1 Listen without asking lots of questions.
2 Be patient. The story may seem long and involved but the other person may not have been given the chance to tell it before.
3 Be calm. As someone tells you of their distress, try to let go of your own preoccupations for a while and be completely present to the other person.
4 Don’t be dismissive of someone just because what they say does not appear to make sense.
5 When the person has finished speaking, make a short response that affirms how they feel. For instance, “It sounds like you feel sad” or “You’re having a difficult time at the moment” or “You want to work out what to do”.
6 Don’t ignore someone who is behaving in a socially inappropriate way but try and interpret what they want to communicate.
7 If you don’t understand something ask for an explanation, don’t assume you know or should know.
8 Tolerate silences and pauses. Allow the other person to think out what they want to say rather than doing it for 9 Look at the non-verbal clues people give you as to how they are feeling. Are they smiling, frowning, restless, staring into space? Try to interpret that feeling sensitively.
10 Be aware of how you are feeling. This may be a clue as to how the other person is feeling. It is also useful to consider how you might feel if you were in their situation and this will make you less judging and more accepting.
Or as one anonymous person who lives with mental ill-health put it:
When I ask you to listen to me and you start giving me advice…you have not heard what I asked!
When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way…you are trampling on my feelings!
When I ask you to listen to me and you feel you have to do something to solve my problem…you have failed me, strange as that may seem!
LISTEN! All I asked was that you LISTEN. Not talk or do. Just hear me! I can do for myself. I’m not helpless – maybe discouraged and faltering, but not helpless.
When you do something for me that I can do and need to do for myself, you contribute to my fear and inadequacy.
But when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel – no matter how irrational – then I can stop trying to convince you and get on with this business of understanding what’s behind this irrational feeling. When that’s clear, the answers are obvious and I don’t need advice…and if you want to talk, wait a minute for your turn…………and I’ll listen to you!