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Just being a listener is powerful. Depending on the person who needs listened to and the situation, listening can be the only thing needed to help somebody. We’re bombarded with messages about listening and responding in a particular way. That we must follow A, B, and C or we aren’t being effective or that we might cause harm to the speaker. While we should aim to listen skillfully and to do no harm, we still can’t forget [or minimize] that just listening is impactful. We don’t always need to know what to say, that should relieve some pressure, all you have to do is listen and be present.
If you have a friend or family member who is experiencing issues and concerns, consider just listening to them first, rather than listening and offering up advice. While listening, practice being an active (non-distracted) listener, paying attention to nonverbal messages, listening to understand, making some eye contact, and being empathetic.
Keep in mind, that the speaker might not need an in-depth conversation. They may just need someone to listen and be there for them. The act of sharing out loud helps lift weight off of shoulders and problem solve. The brain processes differently while speaking out loud, as opposed to keeping your thoughts to yourself.
Ivy, mentor and mental health advocate, wrote about the power of listening. She says, “I have always emphasized that it is important even if you don’t agree with or understand how someone is feeling, to simply just listen to them and what they are going through. Simply asking someone if they are okay and letting them know you are there for them, is something so simple, yet so extremely powerful. Too often we feel like we won’t have the right words to say to people who reach out to us in need, so we keep our distance as a safer alternative. But you can make such a huge difference by just listening to someone’s story.”
Ivy continues, “When we listen to others, we let them know without even saying the words that their feelings are valid, that they themselves are valid and that we care about them. When we listen to other people’s story and allow them to be vulnerable and honest with us, the unexpected benefit is that we too can feel empowered to tell our own story and feel confident that someone will also listen to us when we are struggling.”
Listen to someone’s story and let them know that you’re there for them.
When you want to help, but feel like you can’t
Have you ever felt overwhelmed or stressed out by feeling like you need to help that someone who is coming to you about their problems? Maybe you have your own things that you’re going through and don’t have enough space to hold what they’re going through, as well. Perhaps, you’re feeling burnt out and need to practice self-care. You shouldn’t try to help another person when your glass is empty. Nothing comes out of an empty cup when you try to pour from it. [Even if your glass is full, practice daily self-care.] Whatever your situation, if you still want to be there for them, then just being a listener takes some pressure off of you. You can be present for the other person, but not hold as much responsibility in giving advice.
When to suggest that someone considers talking to a professional counselor
Know when to suggest that someone needs to go seek a mental health professional’s services. Topics like abuse, neglect, addiction, suicidal ideation, and suicide are red flags. Report abuse and neglect when you suspect something serious is going on, so that it can be looked into. Know the signs of suicide in order to prevent it and know what to do. Non-Judgmentally, ask open-ended questions to see what’s going on. Gently suggest that they speak with a mental health professional. Mention two or three benefits of speaking with a professional.
For information on lifeline contacts and resources, visit here.
Other times when a person should talk with a professional is when what they’re going through has impacted their life in such a way that they have difficulty functioning and maintaining a normal routine. Their job, family, social life, sleep, eating, major areas like that have been impacted. Especially, if this has been going on for a few weeks or longer, but really anyone, at anytime should go talk with a professional. It’s easier to fix something before it gets out of hand. This distress scale can help keep tabs on the impact that what you’re going through has on you.
Final words on just listening
Mindy Pierce, MA, LPC of Grow Counseling adds this to help us think further as listeners.
“Here are a few questions to help us think further about the powerful importance of listening and how well we listen:
• Who is the best listener you know?
• What makes that person a good listener?
• How do you feel when you are with that person?
• What can you learn from that person that would make you a better listener?
• What do you hesitate to talk to your partner about? Why?
• What happens to those withheld thoughts and feelings?
• What are the consequences of that withholding for you? For the relationship?
• What conversations would you like to go differently?
• If people think you aren’t listening to them, what will they assume it means? What will this lead to?
The next time something is really bothering you, notice if something holds you back from sharing that with someone. What fears or expectations do you have about what would happen if you shared? And if you do share, what happens?”
The rest of Mindy’s thoughtful article can be found here.
Being present and listening can be helpful to someone. Your friend or family member might just need someone to talk to, so they can empty part of what they’re carrying, a way to problem solve, or process what they’re going through. As a listener, a response isn’t always required. Be there for someone by listening to their story and letting them know that you care. Don’t underestimate the power of just listening, it’s helpful.
Practice reflective listening in your relationship for better communication.
A few reasons why couples argue and struggle to communicate well:
Real-world issues: different opinions on finances, family, raising children, and things going on within the home.
Attachment issues: this can be presented as couples fighting about how they fight.
Communication itself: a person has lack of empathy, when people don’t really listen, and when people are defensive.
Let’s just focus on addressing the communication itself:
In unhealthy communication:
If it’s important enough for couples to fight over, then it’s important to work on it. A healthy couple listens to their partner’s concerns. If it matters to one person, then it’s worth the time needed for the other person to understand.
In unhealthy communication, people spend a lot of their energy getting their point across and defending themselves. They don’t actively hear out the other person, instead they are figuring out what to say next.
Reflective listening is about finding out what’s actually occurring on a deeper level for the other person.
Think of it as being a third person, where you are no longer in the problem, you’re working together to solve it. “Us verse the problem,” not “me verse you verse the problem.”
An example, one spouse might say, in a relieved and uplifted tone of voice, “I didn’t you we’re thinking that.” or “I had no idea, and it makes me feel disheartened to hear you felt that way”.
How to do reflective listening:
Reflective listening is a slowed down conversation, which requires time and paying attention. It increases awareness to the situation.
The couple needs to approach this exercise with a real desire to resolve an issue and a willingness to actively listen. Listen to learn and understand.
They need to be willing to try to experience what the other person is feeling as they speak, and being open and honest about those feelings. This might be the most challenging part; acknowledging, experiencing, and coping with the stronger emotions.
This exercise helps build trust.
Because it’s a conversation, one person is the speaker and the other is the listener. One chooses to speak first while the other listens. Later, the roles are swapped.
The speaker chooses a topic and may start with: “I’d like to talk about …”.
The speaker uses one short sentence at a time. It needs to be short because the other person has to repeat it and feel what it’s like, and it also prevents long-winded monologues and emotions from rising.
The listener only listens, and when the person who is speaking is finished with their sentence, then the listener repeats back what they heard: “What I heard you say was…”.
*The listener is not allowed to embellish or give their side to the argument, that comes later.*
The speaker continues and corrects the listener if what they heard wasn’t what they said.
“What I actually said was…” or “That’s not quite right, I said…”.
*The listener’s role is important, and they should stay aware and involved. Robotically repeating what the speaker is saying does not work.*
The speaking and listening arrangement continues until the speaker has finished what they wanted to say and feels heard and understood.
The speaker becomes the listener and the listener becomes the speaker.
Repeat the speaking and listening arrangement.
After the second speaker is finished and feels heard and understood, the first speaker may want to go again. This activity continues in an open-ended manner until they have completed what they wanted to say and feel they have been heard correctly.
Reflective listening is a way of checking-in with ourselves because the slowed down communication allows us to have the time to reflect on what is most important. We actively listen, giving time to understand and connect on a deeper level with our partner.
From start to end, this exercise may take 5 to 30 minutes.
What to avoid doing:
The listener should not be thinking about what you want to say while they’re supposed to be listening.
Don’t push for an outcome.
Be respectful, don’t interrupt.
Avoid summarizing or robotically repeating back what you’ve heard.
Avoid disagreement with the speaker, until it is your turn to be the speaker.
Practice this exercise:
This exercise becomes easier the more that it is practiced. Check-in when you are unsure that you understand what is happening for your partner; or you can ask your partner to reflect back what you have said, if you feel it is important and want to make sure they are not making assumptions or jumping to conclusions. It may take some time and practice at the beginning, but it is well worth the effort. Talking becomes safer and trust is built up.
Keep in mind, that when some people first start practicing reflective listening, they might have difficulty breaking their own negative habits like interrupting, dismissing, and rushing to fix a problem with a solution.
When this exercise becomes familiar, then it can be used just to check that you have really understood what is happening for the other person. Another benefit is that it saves you from arguing and the emotional pain that arguing causes.
Reflective listening is a way of showing that you want to problem solve together and improve communication.