By indexer
2 years ago

Tips for becoming a better listener

These tips are offered by someone who was trained as a Samaritans volunteer (“To Befriend the Suicidal and Despairing”) a number of years ago but who has not been an active volunteer for some time. However, the art of listening, once acquired, is not easily lost, and he hopes that the following will be of some use to anyone who finds themselves in the situation of being a sounding-board for a friend or relative (or even a complete stranger) whose world has fallen apart for one reason or another.

Tip 1: Listening is both active and passive

It might be thought that listening is nothing more than being the receiver of words spoken by someone else. To an extent that is true, but a distinction needs to be made between listening and hearing. If you have the radio on while you are doing other things, are you listening to it or just hearing it? Likewise, if you are not fully engaged with the person who is speaking, you are only hearing their words, not listening to them.

Active listening is about understanding what is being said and what is not (see below). It may involve some words of your own (again, see below) or it may simply mean demonstrating, by your attitude and demeanour, that you are completely on the side of the person in distress.

There is passivity in listening, because the good listener is only interested in the other person and their needs, and does not constantly interrupt with their own comments and views. If they are “pouring it all out” that is exactly what they need to do, and your function is merely to be there.

Tip 2: Listen for what is not being said

This relates in part to body language. When somebody is in distress they may find it very difficult to put their thoughts and feelings into words, but their bodily posture and general demeanour can tell you a lot if you are able to read the signs. Whole books have been written abut body language, but a simple clue may be gained from whether or not they are willing to make eye contact with you; if they do not, it may be that they are holding something back and not being entirely honest with either you or themselves.

Your own body language is also important, because you need to be completely receptive to the other person. Sit next to them and don’t be afraid to touch a hand or put an arm round a shoulder. You can listen with your whole self and not just your ears.

In terms of what is being said, there may be aspects of the situation that you know something about but the person has not mentioned. You might wonder why this is the case, and use some gentle questioning to encourage them to talk about what might be the most painful part of their difficulty.

Likewise, they may spend a lot of time skating round the edge of the problem and never get to the “nitty-gritty”. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to direct the conversation in a particular direction, but this may be necessary at some stage if the person shows no signs of wanting to do this for themselves. They may well be waiting for you to make this move because they cannot face doing so themselves.

Tip 3: Don’t be afraid of silence

The opposite of “pouring it all out” is saying nothing at all. This is a very common response when someone is distressed and it is not something that should worry you as the listener. Silences can go on for a long time because the person either cannot find the words to use or simply wants to “draw down” into themselves in the knowledge that they are not alone.

Listening can therefore be listening to nothing, and that is a valuable thing in its own right. You can show that you are still there, and still listening, by using touch (as above) or by saying things that either need no response or a simple nod or shake of the head. The latter might be just: “Can I get you another cup of tea?”

You must avoid rushing the person into speaking or making gestures that suggest your impatience. If you want to know the time, glance at your watch or clock in a way that is not obvious!

It is possible that this is not the right time for words to be used, and it could be the case that this encounter will need to be ended at some point with nothing having been said. There are many instances in which a person has returned (to the Samaritans for example) having had several long “silent calls” (usually by phone) before being convinced that they can trust the listener. It was the listener’s patience during the silence that created the trust.

Tip 4: Resist the urge to advise

This may seem an odd thing to say, because your friend or relative may have called you for that very reason. They have a problem and want to know what you would advise them to do. However, in cases where listening is required, offering a ready-made solution could be the worst thing you could do.

Very often, the person knows the answer and what they should do, but wants to hear it from someone else. Sometimes this is because they fear, deep down, that the consequences of the action will be bad and they want someone else to blame should this be so. At other times, they just seek reassurance that they are doing the right thing.

The good listener will turn the request for advice back upon the requester. The answer to “What should I do?” is “What do you think you should do?” (maybe not in those exact words, as the circumstances will dictate the correct approach).

Even worse is the urge to offer advice when it is not called for. The listener should never take charge of the conversation with: “If I were you, I would …” The fact is that you are not that other person, so what you would do is completely irrelevant.

There may not be an answer to a particular problem, and there is no point in pretending that there is one. In many cases, listening is about allowing the person to come to terms with a painful situation, in their own time and the way that will best suit them. There is no solution to the problem of bereavement for example, but a good listener can help by being there and by encouraging the person to talk through their feelings.

Incidentally, many people are at a loss about what to say to someone who has lost a loved one. The answer is not to have a “set speech” but to allow the person as much space and time as they need to grieve. Also, don’t be afraid to talk about the person who has died, because remembering the happy times spent together is one of the best ways of coming to terms with the fact that they are no longer there.

Tip 5: Don’t conduct an interview

Listening to someone in distress is a completely different ballgame to trying to get them to give you answers to questions. You may find it difficult to understand what lies at the heart of their problem, but behaving like a policeman or a court lawyer is not the way to find out.

There is a way to get to understand what is going on, but the good listener does this by being endlessly patient and waiting for the answers to come out in their own good time. You can ask questions, but the best way to do this is to turn what the person says back upon them and prod gently for more information. For example:

Friend: I don’t think he loves me any more.
You: You don’t think he loves you any more?
Friend: I’m sure of it.
You: Can you say why?
Friend: He doesn’t want to be with me like he used to.
You: He doesn’t want to be with you? Since when?

And so on. By the way, when asking questions, try to keep them open rather than closed (i.e. avoid those that ask for yes/no answers) and try not to lead the person in directions that might fit your own assessment of the situation but not that of the person in question.

The above tips are far from complete, because listening is a complex and subtle art and there are many variations on the theme. However, attending to these points should certainly help to make you a better listener.

2 years
Justin 👍👍👍👍
2 years