Wednesday 26 October 2016

Have you really listened today?

Published 22/10/2015 | 16:03

We usually think that listening is easy but in reality it’s something we don’t do half enough.

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At the end of the day, ask yourself the simple question - “did I really listen today”? We encounter many people and a variety of situations on any given day, whether it be school, university, work or socially, we talk constantly, but how often do we really listen?

Listening is a skill and a valuable one at that. We sometimes mistake it for simply perceiving the sound of someone talking, but it is a far more nuanced activity that involves understanding what really lies behind the words being spoken.

They say a problem shared is a problem halved and there’s a great deal of truth in that. By verbalising a problem, the speaker gets to fully realise what the problem is, this can lead, in many cases to a solution presenting itself. Listening is not offering advice, it is allowing the speaker the space, the time and support to lead them to their own conclusions. The skilled listener doesn’t interrupt with advice or observations but instead asks pertinent questions to allow the speaker realise what they are feeling and why.

The dictionary differentiates between hearing and listening in the following way:

Hear - to perceive by the ear.

Listen - to give attention with the ear; attend closely for the purpose of hearing; give ear.

The key difference is the word ‘attention’, that means concentrating fully on what the speaker is saying and not thinking about how that affects you or what you’re going to say next.

If someone is experiencing difficulty, feeling low, desperate or overly anxious, they are encouraged to talk to someone. All the talking in the world won’t do any good, if the other doesn’t listen. If a tree falls down in a wood and there’s no one to hear it, does it make a sound? Equally if someone seeks help by talking about their problems, are they any less alone if they are not listened to?

Almost any conflict or relationship breakdown can trace its roots back to one or both parties not listening. Often a third party is necessary to facilitate active listening, there can be no resolution without listening. It’s one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal.

We live in the ‘Communication Age’, bombarded constantly by social media, phone calls, emails. But how much of that is actually just noise and not real heartfelt communication? Even our face-to-face communication needs to be deciphered and can’t be taken at ‘face value’, listening is not as easy as we think.

A study carried out at UCLA by a Dr. Albert Mehrabian looked to understand just how we convey our emotional messages through words, tone and body language. It found that only 7% of meaning is in the words that are spoken, while 38% of meaning is in the tone of voice - the way the words are said and incredibly 55% of meaning is in facial expression. This shows us just how listening is far more than simply perceiving words.

So how can we be better listeners? Well, first of all we need to appear to be approachable, we have to be opening and unthreatening. There’s a lot to be said for taking an active role in getting someone you care about to open up about their problems. If you notice someone is unusually within themselves or acting out of character you can say to them “You seem out of sorts, is there anything wrong?” You can reassure them with “I’m always here if you need to talk”. They may not respond immediately but you’ll plant an idea in their head that they’re not alone.

Pay close attention to what they are saying and keep eye contact. If they are finding it difficult to talk let them know that you are there for them and that you want to help. Simply saying something like ‘I know this is difficult to talk about, but thank you for trusting me’ will put the person at ease.

Don’t be afraid of a little silence as it is often all that is needed for the person to open up and speak about what is going on for them.

Ask them how they are and what you can do to support them during this tough time. ‘You haven’t seemed yourself lately. Is there anything I can do to help?’ Don’t be afraid to ask if they are suicidal if you feel they might be. Read about suicide here .

Listen carefully and pay attention without any judgement. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine how you would feel in their situation. Pay attention to body language as it can reveal a lot about how the person is feeling. They may be fidgeting a lot or unable to keep your eye contact.

Ask questions if you need to, but remember that your main job is to listen and not to talk. However, asking some open questions can often help getting a conversation started. It can be upsetting to see someone you care about upset and distressed, but it’s important that you stay calm. This will help the other person stay calm also.

Give a clear message of hope and that there is help out there. Your friend or family member will not always feel like they do today, they can get through this and that you and others will be there for them.

It can be difficult if you feel that someone you care about is in a bad place but won’t reach out for help or take the help that you have offered them. This can be frustrating for all involved but it’s important that you remember that there are limits to the help that you can offer. Remember that there is only so much you can do, and try not to beat yourself up about it. Be patient, it may take a while for them to open up and feel comfortable talking with you or someone else, and this is perfectly normal. Tell them that you are there for them when they want your support. If you are worried about the person, it may be time to contact a family member and tell them your concerns.

What can I do if there is an emergency?

There may be times when your friend or family member needs to seek help urgently. They may be experiencing suicidal feelings and feel that they may act on them, or they may be at risk of harming themselves or others.

In this instance, it’s important that you help them seek medical help as soon as possible. You can accompany your friend to their GP or any hospital A&E department and ask for help. If you cannot make your way to hospital, ring 999 or 112. Stay with them while you wait for emergency services to arrive, or go with them to the hospital for help.

The #littlethings campaign is a countrywide effort by the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention and scores of partner organisations and support groups to bring information, awareness, advice and support around mental health for you and your loved ones. Visit for more information. Samaritans is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for anyone struggling to cope. For confidential, nonjudgemental support please call 116 123.


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