Sometimes, when our fears and problems begin to overwhelm us, we feel the need to talk to someone about them. It may be that we seek practical advice and solutions, or we might just feel the need to “get it off our chest”. Whichever it is, one thing is certain: we need a good listener, not someone who simply hears the ‘headlines’ and jumps to conclusions. We need someone who takes it all in, demonstrates empathy and provides the proverbial “shoulder to cry on”.
If you have ever found yourself in need of someone to talk to, you’ll know when you’re not really being heard. The nodding head, the lack of concentration and the tendency to be distracted are all symptoms of the listener who is not fully engaged. How would that person feel when it’s their turn to talk out their anxieties to an unsympathetic ear? It's important for all of us to see both sides of the coin here – we’re all human and need support from time to time, after all.
Perhaps you have opened your heart to family, friends and lovers on occasion. Talking is therapeutic, but only if it is heard attentively and sympathetically. So, when it’s your turn to help out, will you be a good listener? Here are some guidance notes which I find useful and you may do too.
1. Block off enough time. Don’t give short shrift. It makes people feel undervalued.
2. Put yourself on mute. Stay focused on the person in front of you. Let them talk. You can gently ask questions later.
3. Be empathetic. Identify what the other person’s emotions are and connect with them. Make eye-contact and react verbally by telling them you understand, and non-verbally by nodding reassuringly and maintaining an open-body stance.
4. Don’t jump to a solution. If you do, then you might not be fully listening, because you’re strategizing while they’re talking. If they want a solution, they’ll ask you for one.
5. If it’s necessary to encourage or draw them out, ask open-ended questions, not ones that require a simple “yes” or “no”. Ask them to describe their reactions and feelings.
6. Avoid bringing yourself into the conversation. By saying things like “that’s exactly what I went through” you run the risk of alienating the person. You may think it demonstrates empathy but it’s a clumsy way of showing it and not what they want to hear. Remember, this is not about you.
7. Make it all about them and put yourself in their shoes. Rather than thinking about a response, try to understand what they’re going through at an emotional level. For example, if a friend tells you about losing a job, think about their situation and how it might impact them, not how you would feel if you were in their situation.
8. Don’t judge! Remember that your role is to sympathise, not criticise.
If we were talking music genres here, this is definitely not “easy listening”, but more like “difficult jazz”, an anguished cry from the heart, which calls for the full attention of the audience. Done right, it can be rewarding for both parties. Learn to listen to what’s behind the noise.
By Rachel Ward Lilley. Rachel is a business and educational psychologist. She has worked for many years advising SMEs and her current work relates to issues of resilience, communication, personal development, team building and motivation. Over the past 12 years Rachel has extended her work into the educational field. Find out more here.
Photo via Unsplash