"Listen carefully"

How to hear what's really being said

Posted on February 5, 2021 by Lucy Thomas OAM

A black and white picture of Lucy sitting in a school locker. She is wearing oversized jeans, platform shoes and a t-shirt. She has brown hair, she's smiling and looking off to the side in thought.

Recently a good friend of mine Alex Holmes shared some advice online for supporting friends through tough times. His first tip was ‘listen carefully.’ Personally I love this advice.

The way I see it, conversations about mental health often centre around slogans like *don’t suffer alone* or *open up* or *ask for help.* These are solid starting points – if you’ve ever attempted to wrangle your demons alone then you’ll definitely appreciate the value of finding support.

But in order to actually reach out, we need to be able to trust that what comes back to us in return is actually helpful. Similarly when somebody trusts us enough to confide in us, the last thing we want is to make things worse.

That’s is why I’m keen to share some ideas about how we can actually ‘listen carefully’ in practice. Here goes…

1. Be present

This is easier said than done. We live in a cluttered and chaotic world in which people expect us to be accessible 24/7.An animated gif showing a messy black and white scribbleSometimes we’ve got to first attend to our own stuff and *pause the noise* so that we can really sit with someone in what they’re going through. Yes, it’s important to set up a comfy space for them, but also making sure that the time and space works for you will help you to be your best listening self. Or it might involve communicating that you have a set amount of time to talk before you’ll be interrupted. It’s ok to include your needs in supporting someone. Actually I reckon this is a really healthy approach.

2. Suspend judgement

Well this isn’t always possible, but choosing an open-minded headspace can be super helpful in getting to the heart of what’s going on. Remember that you’re listening to someone else who is a completely a separate person to you! They have different beliefs and experiences – they’ve walked an entirely different path to yours. It takes restraint to keep our hottest reactions in check, but if we don’t, we risk shutting down the conversation entirely.

A gif of a fluro shop sign that reads "OPEN"

3. Notice what’s not being said

Sometimes when a friend opens up about where they’re at, you might notice that they focus entirely on what happened, but not how it made them feel. Or they might focus on how everyone else reacted, but aren’t able to reflect on their own behaviour in the moment. I’ve learned to really appreciate curious observations and questions from mates, like “it’s interesting that you’re so focused on everyone else, but like, how did you feel?”

4. Avoid leaping to solutions

When we see someone we care about in a state of suffering, it’s so hard not to try to fix the problem, like:

  • Relationship problems? “Dump them”
  • Grappling with an unexplained state of impending doom? “You need a hobby!”

Most of the time when people open up, they really just want to be heard – leaping to solutions could just cut them off from the attentive space they actually need. Besides, even strategies that are helpful for you might be incredibly unhelpful for someone else!

Quiz Time!

When getting support, would you rather that other person simply listens or gives practical advice?

I prefer simple listening

I prefer practical advice

5. Stop waiting to talk and actually listen!

When we spend the whole conversation waiting for our turn to speak, we run the risk of interrupting, or missing the point entirely. I find it helpful to focus on the other person’s voice and actually try to imagine their experience as they describe it. It’s actually a relief that you don’t need to be prepared with the perfectly wise response, sometimes it’s more validating to show that you simply confirm what understanding you’ve taken away from what they said.

When we really tune in and listen to someone who needs us, we can offer so much more than conversation or advice. We can actually give them the space to be seen and understood. And that, in my humble opinion, is the best gift we have to offer.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

 

Lucy Thomas OAM is the cofounder and CEO of PROJECT ROCKIT, a proud introvert and mental health advocate. You can also check out her piece on “Self-care during times of crisis” here.