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Becoming a better listener
When someone is in distress, it's only natural for us to want to help them feel better. We often think the best way for us to do this is to try and solve all their problems for them by offering advice and solutions, or we try to say things to make them 'cheer up' or feel better about the situation.
Although these responses are well-meaning, they are rarely very effective, especially when someone is in real distress and feeling desperate. It is usually far more effective in these situations to step back a little and simply support the person to talk about their feelings by actively listening to them.
Active listening is a skill that involves you paying full attention to the person talking so you can focus on their thoughts, needs, feelings and ideas. Active listening is not always easy, as it requires effort to really focus and concentrate on what someone is saying to you without interrupting them or offering advice.
Remember - really listening to people makes them feel valued and understood, and offers them the opportunity to explore and express their feelings.
Here are some listening tips you may find useful:
Show you care
Focus on the other person; give them your full attention; stay present and if you feel the perfectly naturally urge to interrupt or talk – try to replace it with listening sign such as nodding your head or saying just a short word to encourage the other person to keep talking – e.g. “go on” “tell me more about that.”
It may take time and several attempts before a person is ready to open up. Time is key. The person sharing shouldn’t feel rushed, or they won’t feel it’s a safe environment. If the other person has paused, wait. They may not have finished speaking. Remember that it might take them some time to think through what they want to say or they may find it difficult to express how they are feeling in words.
Use open questions
Use questions that need more than a yes/no answer, and follow up with things such as "Tell me more" or "How did that affect you?” These questions are objective and require a person to pause, think, reflect and then hopefully expand. Be cautious of questions that start with WHY – e.g. "Why did you do that?" or "Why didn’t you speak to someone?" as they can come across as critical or judgemental.
Say it back
Saying it back can help you check you've understood what someone has said, and show the other person you’re listening and WANT to understand. Repeating something back to somebody (in their words not your own) is a good way to reassure them that they have your undivided attention. You can check to see that you’re hearing what they want you to hear, not putting your own interpretation on the conversation – e.g. “You said that you’re finding it hard to manage your job, childcare and support your mum” rather than “You said you’re struggling to cope with multiple priorities.”
Don’t be put off by an initial negative response and don’t feel you have to fill a silence in a conversation. Show you’re willing to listen – sometimes just kindness and patience are exactly what somebody needs to be able to share what is going on for them.
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