Psychotherapist Stella O'Malley: Why we need to learn to listen
The second in our three-part series on mental health: before we can ask people to open up about their mental health problems, we need to practise how to respond, writes psychotherapist Stella O'Malley
Listen to people! Now that the mental health conversation is up and running, and everywhere you turn, somebody somewhere is advising you to 'talk to someone', perhaps now is a good time to improve the listening skills of the nation. Because just as the song needs the singer and the music needs the dancer, the speaker needs the listener. Sadly, although we're a nation of talkers, we don't seem to be so good at listening.
There are often a few clues to indicate you are a rubbish listener - are you often the last to know the latest news? Do people avoid telling you about sad events that have happened to them? Do you find people hold out on you or close up the conversation once it has started? If you have answered 'yes' to any of them, it could be because you just haven't acquired the appropriate listening skills.
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Listening skills matter because giving your loved ones the gift of understanding and empathic listening is one of the most precious gifts we have as human beings. We all know the impact of the bad listener - how it feels to carefully reveal your innermost thoughts to someone and see them blink vacantly at you with a complete lack of understanding. Worse still, many of us know the dreadfully humiliating experience of being casually dismissed straight after we have spoken from the heart.
How do I improve?
A relatively easy way to improve your listening skills is to make a sincere commitment to try to understand exactly what is going on for the person who is talking. This means you don't jump in with your version of events, but instead you try to ask gentle, relevant and non-judgemental questions that help you and the speaker to uncover their story.
If the person who is talking feels properly listened to, they will then feel adequately encouraged to try to further unpack their thoughts about their situation. The only snag with this is that listening properly takes time and brain space and so our hurried, stressful lives are perhaps the biggest threat to our ability to listen properly.
Finding time to listen
If someone confides in you, it often means they believe you will be the one to understand their feelings. If you don't have time to listen properly to this person, then you need to be authentic - look the speaker in the eye and explain that, at this particular moment, you don't have the time to listen properly to them but you can see that it is important. Then you arrange a time and a place where you can both meet and talk properly.
Turning to face the speaker with an open, unhurried countenance will help the person to open up.
However, although eye contact is often considered an important ingredient of effective communication, it is not essential - many parents find that their most productive conversations with their taciturn, sulky teenagers is in the car when the conversation is sideways and doesn't feel so intrusive. Equally, many people find it less combative to speak while they are walking alongside one another, as the physical movement and the lack of eye contact can allow the speaker to reveal issues they would usually keep hidden.
Another major threat to many people's ability to listen is that most of us believe we understand perfectly well what is going on for everyone else - indeed, most of us 'know' exactly where everyone else is going wrong in their lives. It is often only when it comes to our own problems of living that we admit to ourselves that life can be tricky and some things in life are irresolvable. Funny that.
The problem is that when you presume to know best for other people, you can accidentally act like a member of the school debating team where you triumphantly point out to the person who is talking that everything they have said agrees with your pre-identified conclusion. Although this might feel satisfying, it suggests terrible listening skills. And you're probably wrong - the reality is that the listener seldom has all the facts at their disposal. Indeed, even the speaker rarely knows the full story.
When Lisa first came to me for counselling about problems in her marriage, she explained how she usually confided in her mother, but this wasn't working anymore because her mother believed that Lisa was incredibly lucky to have married such a kind, generous guy as her husband John and so she defended John every time Lisa complained. But dismissing all complaints can make a person feel silenced, misunderstood and isolated. It would have been much more helpful for Lisa if the mother had given her the space to let her air her complaints so Lisa could have the chance to arrive at her own truth about the situation.
After a few weeks of counselling, it emerged that although John was very happy in his work and refused to countenance moving, Lisa was unhappy in her career and she wanted to move. Also, John's porn habit had intruded upon Lisa and John's sex life, leaving Lisa feeling frustrated and unloved. Lisa's mother has no idea about any of this and she remains convinced that their problems are down to Lisa's highly critical nature.
Therapy provided the client with the time and the therapeutic space to reveal her innermost self so she could be understood without fear of judgment or rejection.
Many people have a deep yearning to be understood, and loneliness is more often the consequence of feeling misunderstood and isolated than feeling alone.
The reason why we shouldn't impose our 'solutions' on others is because we seldom fully understand the speaker's perspective and we almost never know the full story. Asking open-ended questions is usually helpful and these questions should be phrased in ways that lead the speaker to further analyse their thoughts; questions such as 'Tell me more about …' or 'What did you mean when you said…?' can help the speaker to go to another level as they try to find a deeper understanding of their lives.
Some people communicate with their words, while others communicate in every single possible way except with their words. For these people, the words are irrelevant; it is the way they say the words that matters - it is their body language, their facial expressions, their tone of voice and even the volume or cadence of their speech that communicates their feelings. It is then up to the listener to try to understand the communication and not become distracted by the words they use.
Empathic understanding has been identified as one of the most valuable gifts a person can give to someone who is in mental distress. Empathic understanding requires the listener to be brave enough to try to feel what it is to be the speaker. This requires courage because it can be emotionally difficult to step into another person's shoes - but it is usually the most helpful step you can take. Feeling understood is profoundly calming.
I have noticed in my work as a psychotherapist that there is often a visible sigh of relief from the client when they see I have an empathic understanding of their experienced reality. At this point, the client often lets out a sigh of relief and their shoulders move downwards because they feel instinctively that they can finally stop strenuously defending themselves and, instead, just be listened to, without fear of being misunderstood or misjudged. This is a precious moment and, from this, everything becomes easier.
If you really want to make life easier for a person you know who has mental health difficulties, the most effective thing you could do is to authentically and empathically attempt to help them find out what is going on for them. This might not seem much, but it is in fact a valuable gift - feeling safe, understood and respected can provide, even for the most disheartened person, the courage to face their difficulties.
Stella O'Malley's new book, Fragile - Why we feel more stressed, anxious and overwhelmed than ever, and what we can do about it, published by Gill, is out now.
Health & Living