What do you do when people try to open up to you about a particular struggle, scenario or their mental health in general?

Do you panic about saying the wrong thing? Do you get flustered? Do you worry that it’s not the right time or place?

Well you wouldn’t be alone.

Therefore, this guide will give you 14 useful tips on how to become a better listener. For those times when a friend or acquaintance seeks to share what’s on their mind.

But first off, it’s important to understand why we need to be good listeners in the first place.

Person Listening

Why Should I Learn to Listen?

Some people think that listening is just listening. Which would make sense of course. But there is actually a lot more to it than that.

Listening is a skill. With the number of distractions currently surrounding us and an increasing amount of conversations being carried out online, it might soon become a dying art.

But that doesn’t change how important it is. For both ourselves and for others.

For others, being listened to can change everything. It can help them to feel respected, understood, trusted, valued and, perhaps most importantly, validated.

People that feel listened to are able to respond more positively to negative situations and are more able to regulate their emotions, according to this research by Nathaniel R. Herr and colleagues.

I’ve even heard from people (one that you’ll hear from very soon) that have claimed being listened to has been the difference between life and death.

For us, having strong listening skills can strengthen our relationships, earn respect, increase our likability as well as improve our learning and attention capabilities.

So, it is safe to say that listening is useful, to say the least.

Now we know why being a good listener is important, how can we become one in a situation that requires it e.g. when a friend opens up about their mental health struggles.

Man making eye contact

How Do I Listen When Someone Opens Up About Their Mental Health?

Below you will find 14 tips for this situation, but please note that different things will suit different people and that your judgement is worth trusting.

  1. Create a Comfortable Environment

Of course, if you’d like someone to speak openly, they must feel comfortable enough in their surroundings to do so. They may lead the way on this.

  1. Be Present

Being present means to avoid distractions and focus on the, well, the present. This will involve being intentional about your listening and showing the person that you are interested in what they have to say.

A useful tip for this could be to view the conversation as a learning opportunity. As if it were something that you were going to have to teach or be tested on.

This will ensure focus and limit your likelihood of succumbing to distractions. Thinking about your to-do list or picking up your phone is not going to help.

A good listener will visibly clear away their distractions and use regular eye contact where comfortable.

  1. Avoid Interrupting

Interrupting whilst someone is speaking, no matter how important what you have to say is, is only going to make the person feel like you aren’t actually interested in what they are saying. It is more likely that they’ll perceive you to be waiting for your chance to talk, rather than listening.

You will still get your chance to have an input. Just wait until they are actually done talking first.

  1. Don’t Force the Conversation

This is a common feature of those that may be a bit nervous or flustered in that they feel like they have to remove any awkwardness.

In this situation, silence is okay. In fact, silence is a very useful tool as it can help you both gather your thoughts and focus on the conversation.

  1. Talk Less

On a similar note, it is probably best in this situation to let the other person get their monsters off their chest.

Perhaps try and go for a 2:1 listening to speaking ratio, because your input will still eb very valuable, but it’s likely that your listening will be more so.

Often we think it will be useful to share our personal experiences and say ‘oh yeah I get that too’, or something along those lines. With some people it is.

However, experts suggest that it is a way of shutting people down and bringing the conversation to your feelings, rather than the intended way round.

  1. Avoid Assumptions and Judgements

This is probably the most important tip on this list.

Every person is a combination of their own situations, experiences, thoughts and so much more. No two people are the same.

Therefore, adding uneducated/ unevidenced assumptions and judgements based on your own experiences may be very unhelpful and could actually cause distress (even long-term!).

  1. Avoid Conversation Blockers

Equally as important as the last.

Conversation blockers are questions or phrases that make it seem as though you’d like to end the conversation.

They can make a person feel worthless and have long-lasting effects. Some people may never want to speak about their struggles ever again.

Examples include:

Being Patronising (e.g. ‘Oh you poor thing’).

Shoulds and Shouldn’ts (e.g. You should do this..’ – Instead, say ‘perhaps you could try…’).

Quick Solace (e.g. ‘that’s nothing to worry about’).

Questioning Why (e.g. ‘Why do you think like that?’).

Interrupting

Shutting Down Conversation (e.g. groaning or rolling your eyes).

Man talking

  1. Ask Leading Questions

Leading questions are great because they show the person that you’re listening intently, and they also give them probes to share what they’d like to. The opposite of a conversation blocker.

  1. Applaud Them (Not Literally)

Being brave enough to discuss these matters is huge. So be ready to give credit where credit is due. Sometimes a simple ‘thanks for sharing that’ will do.

  1. Repeat Their Words or Summarise

Another way to demonstrate that you are listening clearly is to use their words in yours. Summarising with a quick ‘so let me be clear’ or ‘just so I understand’ will also be great for this.

  1. Listen With Eyes

Yes, I’m aware that sounds confusing. But you will be so surprised at the amount we communicate with our eyes. Use your intuition to seek out their facial expressions, hand movements and other body language indicators.

These will help you to realise the extent of the matter at hand as well as pick up more subtle information.

Although this works best if you know the person well enough, as it is best not to make any unevidenced assumptions of course.

  1. Use Encouragers

This involves using very minor prompts. Stuff like nodding your head, giving it a little ‘mhm-mhhmm’ or something similar. Again these show the person that you are listening, which of course goes a long way.

  1. Empathise

By being an active listener, you are already showing empathy. But offering your support, being genuinely interested and showing that you are there can go a very very long way.

  1. Validate

Of anything, any advice that you could give or any amount of time that you could listen, the thing that will likely have the most impact is validation.

This means acknowledging the struggles that are presented and accepting the impact that they are having on that person.

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