I’m sure we’ve all experienced it; going to talk to a friend, family member, therapist etc and feeling this immediate connection, feeling weight lifting off your shoulders… like your feelings are known, understood and valid. This person who makes you feel this way is not a magical genie or a mind reader, but an ACTIVE LISTENER.
In our society, we take the power of listening for granted. Most people don’t listen actively or at a deep level – we mostly just listen to the words being said, and then start thinking about what WE want to say next. Think of a time when you have ranted or shared a hard story or deep secret, and your conversation partner immediately gave you a response as soon as you stopped talking. These responses usually are emotion filled; perhaps a story they have experienced that they are comparing to yours, or “one upping” yours, or perhaps they already have a “solution” to your problem. When this happens, we can often feel unheard, or that our stories are not enough. This can cause the person sharing to shut down and even subconsciously stop telling the particular conversation partner further emotional stories.
Why is this something that I feel passionate about sharing right now?
Active listening involves your full attention, turning off that personal inner dialogue, and coming to the conversation with full commitment to hear the person tell their story. Often, you are not needed for answers, to help problem solve, or to contribute your anger/frustration/sadness etc to their already (potentially) heavy emotions. You are needed to listen and to be empathetic, to give them the reassurance that someone is in their corner. In the past months, we have experienced an influx of events that have had an effect on people’s mental wellbeing (I will use mental wellbeing in order to remind you that you don’t need a mental health diagnosis to struggle with your mental health). The experience of all of these personal, local, national and global events will effect everyone differently, and in order to be supportive to our loved ones we MUST learn and practice active listening. This is even more important as we remember that the events that are affecting our mental wellbeing are NOT easily fixed. You can’t hold a loved one who is anxious about COVID and ensure them that you can create a vaccine, you can’t hear a Black individual talk about their fears around police violence and racism and promise them that this will end soon, you can’t meet up with someone who’s entire career probably won’t return completely for a while and tell them they’ll get a job if they just apply for one. And you definitely can’t tell someone they will get over their fear/anxiety about the state of the world, that they will not feel depressed because the sun will be out tomorrow etc. All you can do is listen fully and offer your empathy.
In my blog post about Toxic Positivity, I talk about Brene Brown and her video about Empathy (check it out here if you missed it). In this easy to watch video, she talks about the difference between empathy and sympathy
The Merriam Webster definition of empathy is the action (and the capacity for) of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
Empathy is one of the key skills that we need to be good active listeners. Before we can even start listening to someone, we must realize the difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy refers to the ability to take part in someone’s feelings, which mostly looks like feeling sorrow for their unfortunate situation. As the definition above shows, to be empathetic means to be able to understand and be sensitive to someone’s experiences WITHOUT having to have experienced those feelings/experiences ourselves. We don’t need to have lost our job, have experienced oppressions like sexism, racism, ableism, etc, or other upsetting and hurtful experiences to be able to be soft and support the people around us through their own pain. By being able to approach someone with empathy, we are able to say something like “that sounds really tough, I’m here” without needing to share a similar situation we’ve experienced, and without highlighting how unfortunate the situation is. This allows us to shift the focus of the conversation from ME to YOU. No longer are we trying to think of our own experiences to share (unless the person you are talking to asks for stories), but are listening fully to their situation to be able to provide a safe, trusting space for them to decompress in and be whoever they need to be in the moment.
Why is listening so important ?
Wouldn’t helping find solutions, or getting your friend help be MORE important in hard situations? Maybe, but give your friend the benefit of the doubt that they probably know where to get help if they want, or perhaps have already TRIED to get help. You might be their solace after talking to a family member, teacher, doctor, police officer, therapist etc. Your role as a friend, family member, therapist, teacher etc is to listen because:
- many people have not felt heard, seen or valued in their day to day life – you might be the first person (whether in this situation, this day or this lifetime) who has allowed them to feel like someone was listening to them
- listening is important part of building a trusting relationship – if they feel that you are listening to them, they might be more likely to come to you in the future in times of vulnerability because they trust you
- listening gives us an understanding about where people are, what they’re experiencing and how they’re feeling – listening helps YOU become more understanding about life outside of your own experiences, can help you connect better with this person and also with other people you meet in your future
Principles of active listening
So we know that active listening is important to build trusting relationships, and to allow people to feel seen, heard and valued. But how is ACTIVE listening different than the listening we do every day?
One thing we have to STOP doing in order to be actively listening, is to be listening for ourselves. Coaching books that talk about active listening have different names for this, but in simplest terms, most of the time that we are listening to someone talk, we are thinking about ourselves. Perhaps we’re thinking of the next thing we want to say, or thinking about something that is triggered by something the other person says such as a to do list or someone you want to talk to. Whatever this looks like for you, it is distracted listening and takes you away from the present, and from the current person who is confiding in you. Active listening looks like:
- offering your full attention : be in the present time when you are listening to someone – listen to hear someone and not to respond. Remember that active listening often doesn’t require you to respond with a long reaction or solution at all. Often times we are preparing a response or rebuttal while someone is talking, and this takes away from our ability to fully hear what they are trying to say. As you practice active listening, you will start to realize when you are no longer fully listening and can come up with some strategies to clear your own thoughts and come back to the conversation fully.
- showing that you are listening – use your body language and gestures, such as nodding, to show that you are listening. Note your posture; put yourself at the same level as the person talking to you (if they are sitting, sit, if they are standing, stand with them or offer a seat), angle your body towards them as much as possible. Eye contact is something that most people look for in a listener, but sometimes this is uncomfortable for the speaker or the listener for many different reasons – if you are uncomfortable or unable to make eye contact or are unsure if the speaker is comfortable with eye contact, mentioning this before the conversation can help ease away from that expectation. If you are on the phone and someone is unable to see you, verbal gestures like “mhm” and “ok” may seem annoying to you, but can provide that validation that you are listening.
- summarizing and reflecting back – being an active listener doesn’t always mean you need to give advice or try to fix something. Sometimes people just need to know that they are being heard, even if they do not find a solution from a conversation. Instead of responding to a story with advice or solutions, repeat back what you have heard or how you sense the person is feeling. This might be through a statement or question ; ex: “it sounds like you’re going through a rough time”, “that seems really hard”, “how does that make you feel?” Don’t worry about reflecting something WRONG – if you aren’t sure if you caught the whole story properly, you can ask “am I right in saying that?” after you reflect back to them. This way, the person knows you are trying your best to follow along and understand, and also has the opportunity to correct you if you’ve missed something.
“Do you want to vent or do you want advice?
As an occupational therapist, most of the people I talk to don’t want advice. Parents who are seeking help with their children, people who are going through rough times with their mental health … these people have heard it all from doctors, teachers and other professionals. They’ve often come to me after things from other professionals haven’t worked or they need something more. My best tool I have to help is active listening. I give them my full attention to rant or tell their stories, and then together we will collaborate using their expertise in their lived experience and my knowledge in different strategies and connections to resources, to help come up with different approaches to help them cope, grow, and live their best lives. Whether you have years of education on various topics or not, you have listening ears, empathy, and a wealth of expertise in the life you’ve lived, so you can create a safe space for someone to rant, explore options and/or heal.
Please note, this is a general piece on active listening, but not all encompassing. Sometimes people just need someone safe to vent to and release some emotions and thoughts. However, there might be a time and place where it is important to take action or to help someone find a solution for something – if you are suspecting the person you’re listening to might need more information or more help than you can provide, ask permission to share your opinion or experience, or ask if they would like a bit of guidance to help find their way or find someone they can talk to.
At the end of the day, it is a special thing that someone has found you to be a safe person to reach out to to share their stories/experiences/troubles! It means you are trustworthy and they feel that they can be themselves around you. Take the time to listen and then take the time to check in with yourself – active listening can be HARD, and emotional especially if you feel that you can’t help the person – make sure to give yourself time to decompress afterwards. If that requires you to chat with a friend, a family member, a therapist, if you need to go for a walk, listen to music, take a nap… whatever it is, take some time for whatever your self care practices look like. Feel free to message me
Now get out there, listen actively and spread some love 🙂 xoxo