How to listen

As well as being my son’s birthday, Sunday October 10th World Mental Health Day 2021.

In response to the latter, I thought I’d write briefly about listening.

As you’ll know from personal experience, good listening makes a huge difference to our lives. But it’s something many struggle with; not a skill many of us were taught.

As someone said to me yesterday, ‘I’ve got some really good friends – but none of them can listen.’

So here are three basic reminders when it comes to the listening game.

Reminder 1: Stay with their story.

This is difficult; our first reaction when someone opens up to us is to link what they say to our life and start off about that. Something like:

‘I don’t know how people can be so uncaring.’
‘I know how you feel. There was this bloke on the bus the other day…’

No, stay with their story. Your story about the bloke on the bus is for another time. For now, it just tramples over theirs and leaves them feeling hurt/unheard.

Let them tell their story in full. Sometimes that’s all they need to do.

Reminder 2: Do not judge their story.

If someone begins to unburden themselves about something, don’t respond in a judgemental way. Don’t say, ‘Well, that was a bit silly!’

They probably already know that; and even if they don’t, it doesn’t help at all.

As soon as someone feels judged, they close up. It might be a huge risk sharing something with you; a significant act of trust. If they hear judgment in your words or tone, they probably won’t be back.

The judgement could take another form. Something like:

‘He was so rude to me, I started to cry!’
‘Oh, that’s nothing to cry about!’

But it was something to cry about, because they did. So what was it that made them cry? Telling them it’s nothing to cry about is simply trashing their feelings.

This is common in childhood. Were you ever told ‘That’s nothing to be sad about!’?

Good listeners help people to feel safe. Nothing good happens unless people feel safe. People don’t feel safe when they feel judged.

Reminder 3: Don’t try and save them.

When someone tells you their story, it doesn’t mean you have to save them. You are not responsible for finding a solution. Often, simple listening is all they need.

How often people have said to me, ‘I feel such a weight off my shoulders!’ And really, I have hardly said anything apart from ask one or two questions.

Some people like to find solutions; and these folk need to be super-aware of this when listening. It tends make them too keen to impose advice on the speaker, or tell them what to do, to find a solution.

But this is their need; not the speaker’s.

As listeners, we’re merely helping people to find their own answers. I cannot save you; I can only save myself.

So, the listener takes their place in the healing process; but they are not responsible for it. We leave our saviour-complex at the door; it does less damage there.

Good listening, which gives space to our story, is like an oasis in the desert of life.

I hope you have oases to drink from along the way.

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