There’s nothing we like better than knowing that we’ve been heard and understood, especially when we’re struggling with the day to day, perhaps with stress or mental health issues.
Active listening is what’s needed on Time to Talk Day (4th Feb) and every other day. Active listening is listening to hear, it’s about taking in the whole person. It’s hearing their words and what’s behind them – their tone, manner and body language. Every element adds to the story, to the truth about what’s going on in their world. Meet Jane and Bob.
Jane How are you?
Bob (unusually irritated and avoiding eye) Fine
Jane How are you… really?
Bob (sighs) Well actually, I’m finding this lockdown really difficult…
Jane heard Bob’s words and noticed the change in his tone and behaviour. She took the conversation at Bob’s pace, allowing him time to think and reflect. She didn’t jump into the silence with:
You look dreadful, but you know it’s even worse for me because…
She didn’t interrupt, force her point of view or bombard him with her advice and opinions.
Our active listening skills include silence. This is very powerful and something to be embraced, not to shy away from. It allows the person to think, reflect and open up. It tells them there’s no pressure, they can take the time they need. You’re there for them, no judgement.
Jane asked open questions (which we’ll cover in more detail in another blog), suffice to say, they let Bob know that she was interested and encouraged him to talk. She ensured the conversation focused on supporting him.
Non-verbals are also key – eye contact, nodding, posture. It’s about encouragement.
Jane Tell me more Bob. What else is going on?
Bob I’m used to seeing lots of people and now, well… you know what it’s like
Jane Yes, it’s tough, I get it. Who are the people you would usually see a lot of?
Jane’s empathising, letting Bob know that she relates to his feelings of loss. She’s reflecting back not only his emotional tone but his words too. We love that, it can embolden us.
Bob (thinks) Jane’s on my wavelength, she used my words, she understands
This is what’s important.
All too often we feel the need to problem solve but – ALERT, ALERT – unless you’re a clinician that’s not your job. After all if someone fell and broke their leg on the pavement in front of you, would you say, ‘don’t worry I’ll put a plaster on that for you’? No. You’d empathise, contact the ambulance and keep them company with a friendly chat, until it arrived. You’re not there to solve or to remedy somebody’s mental health struggles, you’re there to show that you care. I think Brené Brown sums it up brilliantly in this short animation.
I think it’s worth repeating those words:
“Rarely can a response make something better, what makes something better is connection.”
Brené Brown, Houston University
When we ask for clarification and summarise this tells the person who’s struggling that we’re genuinely interested.
Jane If I’m right, what you’ve said is that your main concerns are about being fed up with the current situation and that you’re missing your family
Bob Yes, and I also feel like I’m losing my confidence
The problem that someone presents with is often not the heart of their issue. We’re complex, like an onion we’re made up of lots of layers and if we’re to loosen those off, we need to feel safe to talk. Safety and trust are built through active listening.
As a general rule of thumb, when it comes to talking it should be 20% Jane and 80% Bob. This split is true if you’re a professional clinician, a police negotiator, a manager, a colleague, part of the family or a friend.
Next time I notice someone’s out of sorts, not their usual self, there’s a change in their mood or behaviour, I might start the conversation with something like:
I can see you’re not your usual self.
If you want to talk about it, I’m listening.
It’s about throwing ourselves in whole-heartedly to what could be a sensitive conversation – being there for someone else.
Next time you notice someone is struggling, how will you listen?
Image by Couleur from Pixabay
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