We all need to talk sometimes but how can we be better listeners? We get tips from the true experts – the Samaritans
Each year, Samaritans Ireland volunteers receive 500,000 calls and emails from people in despair. Though many of these people will be suicidal, most will be people who just desperately need to talk to someone who will listen — actually listen — with compassion and without judgement.
But as busy as Samaritans are, not everyone who needs to talk will pick up the phone and call them. Many will keep their troubles to themselves. Some, however, may reach out to a friend, a colleague, a family member or even a stranger.
So if you happen to be that friend, colleague, family member or stranger, what do you do? How do you listen — really listen — when someone in despair desperately needs to talk? According to the Samaritans volunteers I spoke to, it can be a lot less complicated than it might seem.
“It’s all about giving your full attention to that person,” says Michael Keelan, who volunteers in Drogheda. “Just put your phone down, turn to face them and give them proper eye contact. And try not to interrupt. If they mention something that you want to come back to, let them finish what they’re saying — then ask about it.”
As this is possibly the first time they’ve expressed how they are feeling to another human being, a little patience may be needed while they try to find the right words.
“The most important thing is to give them time — don’t rush them,” says Mary Nee, Assistant Director at Samaritans’ Galway Branch. “If somebody is opening up to you about something, give them the time. It’s OK to sit back and have a bit of silence. We tend to want to jump in and fill the silence but we need to give them the space to open up.”
However, being a good listener doesn’t necessarily mean only sitting in silence: “Ask questions that encourage people to talk,” says Samaritans’ Deputy Regional Director, Aileen Spitere. “Ask open questions that they can’t just answer with a yes or a no.
“But it has to be done in a way that they don’t feel you’re being nosey. That can be a fine line — people won’t talk to you if they think you’re just being nosey. Your questions should make people feel you are interested in them, which of course you are, rather than just trying to find out information for the sake of it.”
Typical questions that you can ask include: Do you want to tell me more about it? How long have you been feeling like this? Have you tried anything? What support do you have?
It’s also OK to make supportive statements, such as “that must have been really difficult for you.” It can be helpful to repeat back what they’ve just told you, as it allows you to check that you understand what they’re saying — and it shows you’re genuinely listening.
“People tend to be afraid they’ll say the wrong thing, or won’t know what to say,” says Mary. “Just respond honestly and with compassion. That’s what we do with Samaritans — and that’s what we can do with our friends as well.”
‘Small talk can be surprisingly helpful. You don’t necessarily have to get into a deep conversation — unless it goes in that direction. Even with a bit of small talk, you’re making that human contact. And that can be really helpful for somebody’
But when you ask someone to open up to you, there really is no knowing what they might say. There is a good chance you’ll hear things that may make you very uncomfortable. So how do you disguise your discomfort — especially when you are talking face-to-face?
“It’s very hard when you’re one-on-one,” says Michael. “It’s hard to disguise your body language and your facial expressions. But just be honest instead of trying to mask how you’re feeling. And by being honest with that person, it may give them the confidence to open up to you.”
Having listened to someone bare their soul to you, it’s only natural to want to offer advice or even try to solve their problems for them. But should you?
“In listening to people, we are trying to help them explore how they’re feeling,” says Aileen. “Sometimes all we do is alleviate the person’s distress for the time we are talking to them. Sometimes people are just so terribly lonely that they need a human voice, and to tell somebody what they feel. That can actually help relieve some of the feelings of distress.
“But if we start looking for solutions, we lose what’s important about listening — I think really listening to somebody is one of the greatest gifts you can give. You’re not asking them to give anything back. It’s a one-way gift.”
As Michael explains, your advice may even be unwelcome and counter-productive: “Each person you speak to is their own expert in their own lives. They’re not looking to get advice from you. You’re just there to guide them through their own feelings and help them to help themselves.
“If you tell somebody what to do, they’re less likely to do it. But if they realise for themselves what they need to do, then they are more likely to do it.”
There will be some who will struggle to believe that just by listening you can help someone in despair. But it can and does help. It certainly helped Michael Keelan, who was a caller to the Samaritans before he became a volunteer.
“At the time I was going through a separation,” he says. “The wife and kids were gone. Basically, I was left in the house on my own. I didn’t really know where to look or where to go. I was finding everything overwhelming at the time.”
At a friend’s suggestion, Michael called Samaritans: “I think it was the fourth attempt before I actually spoke,” he says. “The previous times I just hung up — I chickened out. I didn’t have the courage to talk. But talking to that person — it was like releasing a pressure valve. Everything just came out. And I just remember this sense of relief.
“They weren’t telling me what to do. It was just about my feelings, and how this was making me feel. They just let me talk about what I was going through, and I found that really refreshing.”
While Michael had previously tried talking to friends and family about what he was going through, their well-meaning advice just added more pressure.
“It just wasn’t what I needed,” he says. “I didn’t know what I needed at the time but then I got talking to the Samaritans and I realised I just needed to get it all out of me. I needed to get the emotions and everything I was going through out of my head. Then I was able to process what I needed to do.”
Michael’s problems weren’t solved after this one call. But it started him on a journey of recovery, which he took knowing he always had someone who would listen when he needed to talk.
“I think I spoke to the Samaritans about three or four times over the next year,” he says. “Initially, I phoned a couple of times when I was going through bad times. Subsequently, over a year or so, I made another couple of calls. I just found it fantastic, having someone waiting there to talk.”
‘Just put your phone down, turn to face them and give them proper eye contact. And try not to interrupt. If they mention something that you want to come back to, let them finish what they’re saying — then ask about it’
Unfortunately, many of those who would most benefit from a chat will never reach out. So, how can you tell if there is someone in your life who needs to talk? And is it OK for you to start the conversation?
“If you have a friend that you’re worried about, it’s OK to reach out,” says Mary. “It’s a good thing to do — one of the things that you can notice when somebody is going through a hard time is that there is a change in their behaviour. And maybe they’re not looking after their appearance. Maybe they’ve lost weight, or put on weight. Maybe they’re pushing you away when you ask them out for a pint.
Of course, there could be many reasons for any of these changes. However, Aileen Spitere is a big believer in trusting your gut.“If you have a gut feeling about someone, it’s OK to ask if they are OK — ask if they want to go for a coffee.
“It can be very gentle — just make a bit of small talk. Small talk can be surprisingly helpful. You don’t necessarily have to get into a deep conversation unless it goes in that direction. But even with a bit of small talk, you’re making that human contact. And that can be really helpful for somebody.
As part of Samaritans Awareness Day on Sunday, July 24, Samaritans Ireland will be holding a number of events around the country to increase awareness of their work.
Samaritans Ireland is also looking to increase their volunteer numbers by 20pc over the next five years, and they’re very keen to recruit volunteers from all sections of Ireland’s diverse population.
If you are interested in volunteering, everything you need to know can be found at samaritans.ie.
If you are in need of emotional support, you can call Samaritans at any time for free on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on the services available, visit samaritans.ie