When I was going through a particularly difficult time in my life (about 10 years ago), I sought the help from local mental health services. I was referred to a psychologist and during our meeting I explained my difficulties and told her about my past; my father died at the age of 13 and I’d also been the victim of abuse around the same time.
Not feeling heard
At the end of our hour-long conversation she recommended that I attend a stress management course. I was gutted. Had she heard nothing I’d said? Although I was an anxious person, this anxiety stemmed from other things rather than it being an issue in its own right.
I’d never really felt supported by loved ones for what happened; it was as though things had been brushed under the carpet. I think this came from a lack of understanding on their part rather than a lack of caring. Consequently, I’d always just wanted someone to listen. I wanted someone to allow me to tell my story, without judgement. I didn’t want anyone to make it better; I just wanted to be heard.
I never did go to that stress management course.
When I met my therapist
It wasn’t until about seven years’ later that I met the woman who would become my therapist. She helped me explore what had happened to me and she didn’t judge how I felt. She listened, really listened.
We worked with one another for about 18 months. I emerged from my therapy with more forgiveness towards myself and a sense that, despite all I’d gone through, I was strong and resilient and that it was time to live my life!
Never, ever, underestimate the power of giving someone the time and space to express how they’re feeling.
Active listening skills
I’ve no doubt that my experiences led me into wanting to become a counsellor. Having been in the client’s chair I knew the profound effect that ‘just’ listening could have upon people.
During my counselling training we learnt a number of skills to use when working with clients. If you work within a job where you support others, or you have people in your life who you’d like to support with their difficulties then you might find these skills useful.
We may often feel helpless when faced with people who are in distress. The temptation may be to try and ‘do’ things for them but this often comes from our own unease with their feelings.
Here are some active listening skills that may help in your role and/or relationships with others:
1. Body language
You don’t necessarily have to say anything to let the person know you’re listening. Nodding your head, or making noises to acknowledge them (e.g., hmm) are good ways to indicate that you’re paying attention.
Also, make sure that your body shows that you’re focusing on the person. For example, if you’re sitting down don’t slouch as this may give the message that you’re not bothered about what they’re saying.
2. Repeating back what the person has said
So, the person might say “I’ve had a really tough day at work and I’m really stressed”, so you might repeat back what they’ve said with “You’re stressed because of the tough day at work”. Whilst this might sound ‘false’ because you’re pretty much repeating what they’ve said verbatim, it’s a really easy way of letting the person know that you’ve heard them.
As well as repeating back what the person has said, you can also paraphrase (i.e. say what they’ve said but in a slightly different way). For example, your work colleague says “I’m so angry with my manager, we have all this work to do and he’s not keeping the team in line!”.
You could respond with something like “You’re unhappy with your manager as you feel he’s not doing his job properly”.
This is a way of checking out whether or not you’ve understood what someone is trying to say. It’s a way of offering the person your interpretation of what they’ve said. Be careful though. This isn’t about telling them how they feel (only they know that). It’s about expressing what you think they’re saying and waiting to hear their views.
It’s often good to start a reflection with “It sounds like…” or “Tell me if I’m wrong, but it seems like…” For example, a work colleague might say “I’m so busy at work, there barely seem enough hours in the day. I feel so tired and don’t think I can cope much longer”.
You might respond with something like: “It sounds like you’re finding the workload too much and are worried about burning out?”.
This is useful if the person you’re talking to has told you a lot of information all at once. It involves you summarising the key points of what they’ve said, which lets them know that you’ve heard them.
I hope you’ve found this information helpful. If you have any questions then please feel free to comment below or contact me and I’d be more than happy to help. You can also watch my Youtube video on active listening skills below.
If you prefer to have something to print off and refer to you can find these skills, plus a few more helpful tips, in my ebook on active listening skills which you can download for FREE here!