We all know when someone is really listening. What a difference it makes to have someone’s attention.
We actively encourage young people and others who are struggling with their feelings and mental health to reach out and talk to someone.
This will only work for the individual who takes this bold first step to connect if the person they approach is ready to listen, really listen and to do so with commitment.
Here are some tips on how to be a good and effective listener.
Listening is not teaching, lecturing, fixing things or providing opinions.
Other things on your mind can wait. Your priority is the person you are listening to. You cannot listen if you’re distracted by your mobile phone or other device. Make a conscious decision to put it aside when you’re talking with a young person. They will wholeheartedly appreciate that they are really the centre of your attention.
Use your body language to show you’re actively listening, being careful not to overdo it and appear intrusive. Lean in slightly, nod and smile appropriately and encourage gently.
Use short sounds like mmm, huh, wow, ooh, to let them know you’re listening and not interfering.
They’ll see through you!
Acknowledge their feelings without judgement or suggestion. This is their time. Try to keep your opinions to yourself. Young people don’t respond well when they feel criticised or that their views are being overlooked.
Challenging what they say serves only to to invalidate someone’s feelings, closing down their opportunity to express what’s really on their mind. Your aim is not to change the feeling or to cheer them up. Instead, you are aiming to show that you care by giving them space and time to express themselves and the opportunity to come up with their own solutions.
Empathise rather than probe. “Tell me how you’re feeling” is not empathy. Neither are statements like “What’s up?” which can feel confrontational. or “Everything will be okay”, which you cannot guarantee and might seem vacuous.
You can open conversations with simple statements reflecting what your perceiving – for example, “You look sad or you seem quiet tonight.” This acknowledges that you are noticing while not ambushing them with questions which can result in the defence barriers going up.
Empathising can help get a feeling out. You are acknowledging it and validating their experience. Your aim is not to change the feeling or to cheer them up. Instead, you are aiming to show that you care by giving them time to express themselves and the opportunity to come up with their own solutions.
Avoid putting someone on the spot. Many people are uncomfortable with direct eye contact. They may feel more comfortable sitting side by side or diagonally rather than opposite. Keep your eye contact subtle and respond with a gentle smile when they look at you so they know you’re still with them.
Remember that people learn when they hear their own words and come to their own solutions. Hold back and give them space to talk. Acknowledge and accept what they say, even if you don’t agree. What you’re trying to do is to let them express their feelings, get out what’s troubling them, and acknowledging it so that it doesn’t get buried.
Challenging or rebutting what they say serves only to to invalidate their feelings, closing down their opportunity to express what’s really on their mind.
It’s important too, to keep the conversation safe for the person and you, by managing your own emotions. Talk only when you feel ready and able to, so the person again gets your full attention.