“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”Stephen R. Covey
You may be aware of the recent ITV campaign “Get Britain Talking”, encouraging us all to open up to each other more. This is a great idea in principle, however I think what is just as important but often overlooked, is to “Get Britain Listening”. Each side of the conversation serves a crucial purpose, otherwise we might as well talk to a brick wall (I’m sure we’ve all had conversations where we’ve felt that this might actually be preferable!).
I saw an advert for the “Get Britain Talking” campaign on breakfast TV recently, immediately followed by an interview with a rugby player who was discussing his struggles with mental health. Just as he was telling an important part of his story, the presenter cut in with their next question. My fiancé said that he was relating to what the rugby player was saying (as I’m sure countless other viewers would’ve been at that very moment), and was disappointed that he didn’t even get to finish the sentence. I understand that interviewers have a short timeframe to work with, but I just found it ironic & sad that seconds after telling its viewers to open up to each other, the same channel were interrupting somebody who was trying to do just that. And it’s not just in interviews – I hear this type of interaction all around me, where it’s obvious that the “listener” is planning what to say next, rather than really absorbing and trying to learn from what the talker is saying.
I was in a shop recently with my 3 year old and she had a toy Pascal (he’s the chameleon from the movie Tangled in case you’re not familiar). The friendly shop assistant started a conversation with her that went like this:
“Ooh that’s nice, is that your dinosaur?”
“No, it’s Pascal.”
“And what colour is your dinosaur?”
“He’s not a dinosaur, he’s Pascal. He’s a lizard.”
“Ooh yes, he’s green.”
While my toddler was fully present in the interaction, the shop assistant was responding to what she was expecting to hear, not to what was actually being said.
This got me thinking that while we would all like to think we’re good listeners, I see a lot of evidence to the contrary, and that can’t be helpful in a society where we want people to be more open about their emotions and feel genuine connections to each other.
I’ve also noticed that a lot of the pressure to take action, even the statement itself: “get talking”, is placed on the people who most need help, when they might not be feeling strong enough or even have the words to articulate what it is they’re feeling.
So what if we could do more as “listeners” to encourage those conversations and make people feel supported when they do decide to open up to us?
Make them feel heard
“There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak”Simon Sinek
Imagine you are going through a difficult time and when you open up to somebody, they turn it into a conversation about when they had a “similar” experience, and it’s no longer about you. Or they offer empty words of comfort like a greetings card, then try to distract you by changing the subject onto something more positive. It’s unlikely you’d go back to them for emotional support. Not feeling heard or understood causes anxiety and frustration, and is a trigger for many arguments. We are social animals and any form of isolation, whether it’s physical or mental, can add to our trauma and prolong suffering.
If somebody chooses you to open up to – no matter how big or small the matter seems to you – remove any distractions and offer your full attention. Put your phone away, leave the dishes – whatever you’re in the middle of doing, stop! This sounds obvious but we’re always so busy and attached to our phones, we do everything at once but never really give each thing our undivided attention.
Pay attention to the language they use, and use their own words back to them in your responses. This will help them to process their emotions & shows that you’re really listening – you’re acting like a mirror reflecting back to them so they can hear what they’ve already said, but with a different voice. It might give them an alternative perspective from when it was swirling around inside their head.
It sends a really powerful message to somebody if you can genuinely be present for them, prioritising their needs in that moment over everything else. You wouldn’t want to confide in someone who keeps one eye on their phone just in case something more interesting pops up, would you?! Notice your body language from their perspective – your posture, your facial expressions, are you looking directly at them. Ultimately: do you look like you care what they have to say?
My 5 year old quite often says to me “mummy, can I tell you something?” and if I can, I’ll stop what I’m doing, get down to his level and give him my full attention while he tells me whatever it is. I want to encourage him to be open and know that whatever he has to say is important, and I know he appreciates this.
If they’re unable or not ready to talk yet, you might suggest for them to write it down. Even if they never end up giving you what they have written, it can be helpful for them just to get it out and onto paper, and they’re reassured in the knowledge that you’re ready to support them when they are ready. I’ve had many clients say they felt better after making their first appointment for therapy even before the first session, like it’s provided them with an invisible safety net.
Empathy vs Sympathy – there’s a big difference!
Our brains contain mirror neurons – they’re the reason why when something sad happens to someone else (even if you know they’re only actors in a TV programme) you feel sad too, or if you see somebody injure themselves you might feel a sensation in the same area of your own body. This is what connects us to one another, and gives us the ability to truly empathise.
Empathy is about being able to put yourself into the other person’s shoes and feel with them – if they feel like they’re at the bottom of a well, you’re climbing in there with them. It can be uncomfortable and even painful to do, especially if it opens up painful emotions in yourself. If somebody is struggling with their mental health you’re unlikely to be able to “fix” them with your words; the best you can offer in this situation is your unconditional presence. It’s perfectly OK to say “I don’t know what to say”, but let them know that you will be there to support them and you’re grateful that they chose to talk to you.
Sympathy usually comes from a good place but can sometimes feel insincere or even insensitive to the recipient. It doesn’t elicit a sense of connection, and in some cases it can drive people apart. It’s the equivalent of saying “I’m sorry you feel this way, but I won’t be joining you down the well”. An example of sympathy is someone trying to put a silver lining on an emotional situation – “you’re still young & pretty, you’ll find another husband in no time!” – probably not what you’d want to hear if you’d just been left by the love of your life. It reduces a situation to facts, not feelings – if only life were that simple!
Learn to become comfortable with silence
Sometimes the most powerful tool as a listener can be to sit in silence. Most people find prolonged silence uncomfortable, so their brains will be hard at work finding something to fill it with, and this is often where they start to really open up. Use this time to provide non-verbal cues of encouragement: a smile, a nod, eye contact to let them know you’re still present. In my therapy sessions, I’m happy to wait in silence as long as is required for an answer; it gives clients time to gather their thoughts and put them into their own words, without interruption or influence from anyone else.
The parts of our brains responsible for emotions are located in a different region from those responsible for language, which is why it can often be so difficult to put into words something that is emotionally charged. Have patience and allow them to go at their own pace.
Accept that not everything can be fixed
It’s natural to want to comfort others when they are feeling low, and our instinct may be to try to fix it with actions or words. But it’s important to accept and acknowledge that there are some situations that simply cannot be fixed. Saying to someone whose life has been turned upside down, “life is cruel sometimes” (or a more strongly worded version), is OK – you’re not telling them anything they don’t already know, and you’re not going to push them further into depression by stating the fact. When somebody is grieving the loss of a loved one for example, there is no “fixing the problem”, and all they may really take comfort in during that period of raw emotion is that they are supported by people who will allow them to feel whatever it is they are feeling, without any judgement or expectation.
You may feel uncomfortable with being helpless, but it can sometimes be more damaging trying to find words of comfort which might come out wrong to the recipient. For example trying to find reason, or sentences that start with “at least…” when someone has loved a lost one can come across like you’re trying to downplay what’s happened, and that’s unlikely to be appreciated.
If myself or my fiancé need a rant about something, we will let the other know: “I don’t want you to offer solutions, I just need to vent”. Setting that clear intention keeps the conversation focused on what the talker wants in that moment – to release their built-up emotions. Any potential solutions can come later, once they’ve had time to process their emotions, and have the energy to think about the next steps rationally.
You’re allowed to show your own vulnerability in not feeling equipped to deal with what they’re going through, and let them take the lead. Ask what they need in that moment – “A hug/walk/coffee? Do you want to be alone or would you like me to stay with you?”. Just making them aware that you’re not scared off by their display of emotion can be all the reassurance they need in that moment, and might encourage them to come to you again. Also taking the initiative to provide help without being asked can be a really positive boost, especially as we as a society are not very good at asking for help. Leaving a coffee on somebody’s desk for when they come into work, or dropping off a meal to a neighbour who just lost their spouse – these might seem like small gestures that won’t fix the problem, but it’s the message they send to the recipient that is really powerful. It says: “I care and I’m here for you”.
Being a good listener means being present in the moment, and interested in what the talker has to say. It can feel uncomfortable and counter-intuitive at times, but I hope these tips have given you something to think about in becoming a more active listener.
I’d love to hear if you’ve been able to put any of them into practice and found that they’ve helped you and/or others to have more meaningful, connected interactions.