By Mary McGovern, MSW

Someone you love is going through a tough time. It could be your child, parent, partner, friend. Maybe they are experiencing a crisis – or struggling to function. They might be grappling with gender identity, domestic violence, serious illness, mental health challenges, relationship or job loss – or several of these at once.

You are so worried for them – and want to help.

The single most powerful thing you can do for them: Listen.

Why Listening is Helpful

As a species, human beings need each other to survive. As a result, our brains and nervous systems have evolved to feel safest when we are with someone who we trust to “have our back”.When we are struggling – physically, emotionally, or socially – we feel particularly vulnerable. Knowing that someone fully sees us, understands our challenges and needs, and is willing to stick with us unconditionally can give us the sense of safety we need to draw upon our own inner resources to heal, grow, and find our way through the difficulty.

The act of simply listening, without judgement or advice, conveys that we care about what they are thinking and feeling. It lets them know we are willing to be with them, even when it is difficult and uncomfortable. It also allows us to gain the fullest understanding of what our loved one is experiencing.

How to Listen

Presence: To listen effectively, we must give our full attention to the other person. This is not a time for phone scrolling, multi-tasking, or thinking about your own “to do list”. Attune yourself not only to their words, but to their body language and emotional tone as well. It’s not strictly necessary to maintain eye contact – for some people, this can feel intrusive and uncomfortable. But you can convey through your own words and body language that you are fully tuned in.

Reflecting: One way to demonstrate that you are paying attention is to reflect back what you are seeing, hearing, and feeling (yes, you can actually pick up other’s emotions in your body!). You can use phrases like: “You seem really worried”, or “So you’re really angry about what they said,” or “You’re hurt that your friends ignored you,” or “You’re really scared about your diagnosis.” You don’t need to add anything, analyze anything, fix anything, provide any words of comfort. The goal is simply to let them know that you’re paying attention.

Be calm, open, and curious: Few of us are willing to share our thoughts and feelings if we think we will be judged, misunderstood, disagreed with, or otherwise met with emotional reactivity. Maintaining an attitude of calm, “anything you say will be OK,” and “I really want to understand what you are feeling/thinking/experiencing,“ is essential to providing the emotional safety necessary for those who are struggling to share what they are experiencing. Feel free to ask clarifying questions, such as: “what was that like for you?” or “I’m not sure exactly what you mean. Could you tell me more?”, or “It sounds like you’re feeling/thinking . . .(fill in the blank). Do I have it right? Or is it something else.” Give them lots of opportunity to correct you, in case you haven’t fully understood them the first time.

Affirm and offer support: Very little is required beyond your compassionate attention, but two types of response can sometimes be appreciated. Affirming their emotion can be very validating. Phrases like, “I can understand why you are so upset,” or “I hear how very hurt you are feeling,” let them know that their experience and perspective is legitimate and important to you. Offering support is most helpful when we convey that we trust them to know best what they need. Phrases like “How can I best support you?,” “Is there a way that I can support you?”, or “Please let me know how I can be helpful,” all fall into this category. In some situations – if they are feeling truly overwhelmed and don’t know what they need – you can ask: “would it be helpful if I . . .(fill in the blank)”, but be prepared to honor their answer if they say “no”.

What NOT to do

  • Invalidating statements: Phrases like “you shouldn’t feel that way,” or “you are thinking about this wrong,” or “it’s not that bad,” rarely help someone feel better. The fact is – they DO feel the emotions they are describing. Minimizing or arguing with their feelings simply conveys that you are not willing to take them seriously.
  • Centering yourself: We might feel that it is connecting or comforting to jump in with a story about when WE had a similar experience or emotion, but what doing so really conveys is that we are more interested in talking about ourselves than listening to them.If – after reflecting – you DO feel that it would be helpful to share that you’ve experienced something similar, reference it only briefly and immediately redirect your attention back to them, as in “I had something like that happen to me once, and it was awful. How are you managing? What do you think might help you?”
  • Giving advice or trying to “fix it”: Of course we want to try to “fix the problem” so that our loved one can be happy! However, we are only an expert of our own experience – not someone else’s. What seems right and logical to us cannot possibly take into account all of the factors in our loved one’s life, such as their temperament, goals, needs, and sense of readiness. Jumping in with advice can be both overwhelming and disempowering – and frustrating for both of you when they resist your advice or try to explain why it doesn’t feel right to them. Much more helpful is your faith that they know best what they need – and your willingness to stick with them as they figure it out.

If you have any doubt, think about times when YOU have been on the receiving end of these types of responses – and remember how they felt to you. Rather than thinking, “What would I do if I was in their situation?”, try to imagine “How would I want to be treated if I were in their situation?”

Why is “just listening” so hard?

In times of distress or when the stakes are high, “just listening” can seem next to impossible. Our own nervous system is screaming at us to “do something!” in the face of what feels like grave threat. This fight/flight instinct is evolutionarily hard-wired. The result is that in our anxiousness, we feel compelled to “make it better” – either by insisting that our loved one feel differently or pushing them to take actions we think will solve things.

This dynamic is exacerbated when we believe we “know better” than our loved one, as is often the case with parents toward their children – or adult children toward their aging parents. Our care and sense of responsibility evolve into a desire to control their experience, which often results in trying to dictate what they should think and do. This response is normal and natural – and almost never helpful. A better approach is to take the time to experience and soothe our own emotions, to remind ourselves that this is our loved one’s journey, not ours, and to assess what a productive and compassionate response might be. Once we feel calm and steady, we will have much better capacity to listen.

When Action is Needed

Of course, in some crisis situations, action is imperative. If there is imminent danger of physical harm, intervening to disrupt that harm can be lifesaving.

The interesting thing is this: If we have been fully present and closely listening to our loved one, we are in the best position not only to spot the danger signs, but to intervene in a way that is both effective and feels supportive to them. Even if they object to our taking unilateral action, we can do so in a way that takes into account their fears and needs. As a result, the relationship is likely to recover more quickly if you have a foundation of understanding and trust built on respectful listening.

The Pay-off

The restraint and practice involved in developing good listening skills can seem like a lot of work, but the rewards are well worth it. Compassionate listening allows us to better understand, feel closer and be more connected to the people around us. This can lead to stronger relationships, more effective collaborations, less stress, and greater resilience for all of us. Practicing compassionate listening also models this important skill for others around us, increasing the likelihood that they will become better listeners themselves.


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