The Covid pandemic has been like a pressure cooker for all kinds of issues that can really affect our mental wellbeing. Isolation and loneliness, family and relationship issues, mental and physical health or illness, employment and money worries… as if these weren’t already hard enough to cope with, they have been exacerbated by lockdown and the swirling uncertainties of 2020.
Now, more than ever, it’s so important that we take time to check-in and connect with our loved ones – whether it’s friends, family members, partners, colleagues or neighbours – to talk about how we are feeling and listen to one another in a way that can prevent feelings of concern or worry from escalating into more severe distress.
The skill of listening can play a vital role here. It is so important, yet so underrated. There are many reasons we don’t listen well – in the cut and thrust of daily life, we might simply forget to show how much we care or to give one another the time and space that leads to better conversation. Or, when we see someone we love and care about suffer, we immediately want to jump in and fix it for them to make it stop hurting and help them feel better. Sometimes we want to be heard ourselves, to talk about when something similar happened to us, explore our own feelings, opinions and experiences – often with the ambition of giving advice but sometimes because we know that it’s good to talk, but it’s even better to be heard. As humans, we crave attention.
However, jumping straight into solutions isn’t always helpful. Sometimes, when people are struggling with anxious or depressive thoughts, they have low feelings of self-worth which can cause thought patterns such as “nobody cares” or “I feel so worthless, I can’t do anything right”. By trying to fix a problem rather than simply accept it for what it is, you might be inadvertently implying to that person that they can’t sort out their own issue for themselves. This then feeds into the negative thought loop that they’re not good enough or can’t cope.
If you don’t really listen to what someone is saying to you, they might think “Why am I even bothering to talk about this when you don’t seem to care?” and retreat further into themselves. Or, they might compress feelings until they explode in an argument of “You’re not even listening to what I’m trying to say”. This can increase low moods, cause upset and result in a tendency to not speak up again for fear of causing turmoil. To repress these feelings or not be able to express them in a calm ordered way can mean that, if left unchecked, they intensify.
Every single person I interviewed for How To Listen told me that the most important part of being really listened to was a feeling of validation. That by being held in a safe space and given the time and room to really be heard, as opposed to being fixed or told what to do, reassured them that what they were feeling was OK – even if they admitted to being scared, anxious, upset, numb or completely out of control. They realised it was absolutely fine to not feel fine at all.
Saying their thoughts out loud and having them accepted validated their feelings, made them feel less alone and this led to a sense of calm. They could then begin to understand what was going on and work out a way through a situation that felt scary or chaotic. As well as being comforted by the calmness and empathy of the listener, it gave them back the power to realise that, actually, they were good enough. And they could get through this.
It’s important to make time one-on-one to have a good conversation. We can’t go to pubs at the moment but, in any case, a busy loud pub isn’t a great place to connect, so organise a quiet catch up when there’s nothing else going on. If a face-to-face deep and meaningful feels too confrontational, go for a walk or a drive – being side by side rather than face-to-face can help people open up and there will be a natural ending to the conversation once the journey is done, so it can feel safer. Or, take part in an activity together – the cognitive act of doing something physical actually opens up the emotional part of the brain, so it’s easier to get to the root of feelings and emotions.
When listening to friends, family or loved ones, it’s natural that tensions will arise and emotions will be present because we care about one another and we know each other well. But there’s no right or wrong in listening, the main thing is to show up and show that you care, demonstrate that you’re willing to try and hear what it is that person is trying to tell you. It takes a lot of courage to reach out and ask for help, or to admit that something is wrong. Initially, all you need to do is take a deep breath and say: “OK. I’m listening. Tell me a little bit more.” A huge part of being a better listener is simply recognising that the person speaking doesn’t need any more from you than that – just pay close attention and keep the conversation going, letting the person talk through all their options until there’s nothing left to say, without giving advice like “perhaps you could…”, “have you tried…” or “maybe you should…”.
There are a few more tips and tricks that help you to listen better. Firstly, show you care by showing compassion and giving time and your full attention. Reassure the person that you won’t judge them. Then have patience as they try to work out their feelings. Ask open questions so as not to shut the conversation down and offer small phrases of encouragement to keep the person talking, like “Yes?” or nodding and saying, “Can you just tell me a bit more?”. Don’t be afraid of silence. Keeping quiet can allow someone to process their thoughts and work out what else needs to be said. Just keep the conversation flowing, then clarify what you’ve heard to see if it’s correct or if there’s still something to talk through or a different way of looking at things.
The end goal when you are listening to someone is not to have everything neatly tied up and sorted out. It’s about letting the person know that you are there alongside them in the moment. That in itself can feel hugely comforting and reassuring. By being there with them, you might just share the burden. By providing the safe space of listening, you allow the person to work out what they are feeling, why they feel the way they do and if/how they want to tackle it.
People know themselves much better than anyone else and are therefore best placed to know what to do next. Your role as a listener is not to try and be a counsellor, or to encourage them to talk about their trauma with you, it’s about giving back the power to the person who is struggling, to remind them of their self-worth and that they are capable of making the right decision for themselves.
How to Listen: Tools for Opening Up Conversations When It Matters Most by Katie Colombus and Samaritans (Octopus). Buy now for £12.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514