We are living through troubled times and it looks like social isolation is going to be with us for some time. You may not be able to meet up with a friend or family member, but how can you be there for them? We can do this by contacting them by telephone, email, etc. But if the person is troubled or has a problem we often respond by giving advice or using words of wisdom such as ‘time heals’ or ‘everyone is facing the same problem’. However, this is frequently not what is needed. Why don’t we just listen?
You may feel passive or powerless when listening to someone sharing how they feel. You might have an urge to jump in with a solution. But is that what the person needs?
This doesn’t mean that you have to be passive. You can say things to help and understand the situation without giving advice. For example:
Ask relevant questions and for clarifications to help you understand what the person is going through. Occasionally, summarise what has been said to show you are following the conversation and are making an effort to grasp the situation. But do avoid interrogating! This usually takes the form of asking too many ‘why’ questions. Keep these to a minimum. Also, avoid being judgemental. Don’t let it show in your voice.
Validate the person’s feelings and perceptions. This does not mean you agree with them. However unlikely, bizarre or strange, it is what the person is feeling or perceives. You could say something like: ‘That must have been a dreadful shock. Have you any idea what made her so angry?’, ‘How did you feel after hearing that?’ or ‘What happened to give you that impression?’
Doing this is often all you need to do. The person does not want advice but to be heard, express their feelings and have them validated and understood. Sometimes individuals like to vent their feelings and say things out loud. It helps them make sense of their own problems.
If the person indicates they want advice you could suggest different ways of looking at the problem, different solutions they might consider and point out helpful resources such as articles, books and support in the community. But it is essential you listen and validate first.
If you find you are forcing yourself to listen because you are busy or you, too, find the issue upsetting, tell the person. Offer a later time to talk or contact them when you can listen, pay attention and have your emotions under control.
Copyright – Robin Dynes