Listen. No, shush. Listen*

May 13, 2014 at 10:07 pm | Posted in mental health | 8 Comments
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For Mental Health Awareness Week.

We’re used to having this kind of conversation with friends:

  • Topsy: How are you?
  • Tim: Oh, I don’t know. Not too good, if I’m honest. I just feel worn out.
  • Topsy: Ooh, I know what you mean! I haven’t slept properly for ages.
  • Tim: Mmm. I’m just feeling really down about everything.
  • Topsy: Oh, dear. I know loads of people who are stressed out at the moment.
  • Tim: I think it might be more than just stress.
  • Topsy: It’s hard when your kids are little. Maybe getting out on your bike would help?
  • Tim: I can’t really seem to get motivated to do anything.
  • Topsy: Oh no! Have you been to the doctor?

This is fine, right? Topsy’s making suggestions, giving advice, trying to make Tim feel better. So why does Tim come away from this conversation feeling wretched? He knows Topsy was trying to help, but he feels that his problems were being minimised, that he was being jollied along, that Topsy wasn’t really taking him seriously.

Here’s an alternative.

  • Topsy: How are you?
  • Tim: Oh, I don’t know. Not too good, if I’m honest. I just feel worn out.
  • Topsy: That sounds hard.
  • Tim: Mmm. I’m just feeling really down about everything.
  • Topsy: Oh, dear.
  • Tim: I think it might be more than just stress.
  • Topsy: Oh, really?
  • Tim: I can’t really seem to get motivated to do anything.
  • Topsy: That must be tough.

We fear this kind of conversation because we think: what if I make it worse? What if Tim starts to feel REALLY bad, because I haven’t managed to cheer him up? In fact, the opposite might be true.

Siegfried Neuenhausen Künstlerwand Bertramstraße 1991 Gerd Winner stop-look-listen cautionJust listening to someone is enormously powerful. Giving them all your attention. Putting your own ideas and opinions and concerns to one side, and just listening while they talk. Without:

  • interrupting
  • saying ‘I know what you mean’ (you can’t be sure of this)
  • giving anecdotes from your own life, or those of others you know (this takes the focus away from the person you’re talking to)
  • giving advice
  • making suggestions
  • trying to cheer them up or distract them
  • trying to make them feel their problems aren’t really so bad

It’s hard to do. It’s really hard. We’re not used to it. But it’s worth a try. You won’t make it worse, and you might even help.

* (aka: what I’ve learned from a year of counselling training)

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8 Comments »

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  1. So true. I work for a charity and part of my job involves taking calls on the charity’s information line. If the caller starts talking about how they’re feeling – which is quite often – this is how we’ve been trained to respond. It’s really bloody difficult to do, particularly when your natural instinct is to fix things, and to try to find solutions. Learning the limits of what you can do in one conversation is so important. Sometimes listening is the only thing you can do, and the only thing the other person wants.

    • That’s it, exactly. Oddly, I’ve found trying to do this quite ‘freeing’ as a listener, too – when you stop trying to think up solutions and advice, you can relax and actually hear what the person is saying.

  2. It’s the small things, and in large part being brave enough and wise enough not to feel like you *have* to help. Just being there is often enough, and a massively underrated skill – as is, of course, having the right biscuits*.

    • Absolutely. It’s a leap of faith, isn’t it. And spot on re. biscuits.

  3. Sometimes it’s so hard to find the right words when people are feeling down – and yet it’s so easy to be jolly and jovial when they’re not. Thanks for this post – because it helps us find the right words and mean it…..

    • Thanks so much for that. It was a revelation to me when I started training – I’m still learning to do it but when it works, you can feel it.

  4. […] something. But I’m not going to make you suffer that half-written gabble when you could read this piece from one of my friends […]

  5. […] You don’t even have to know the way out. Just be willing to be with us in that dark space, let us know it’s okay to be there, that you still love us. Talking is optional – in fact, don’t. Tea is better. Chocolate is better. Holding our hands or an awkward hug is better still. As one of my many awesomely talented friends, AccidentoBizarro, says, Listen – no, shush, listen. […]


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