Photo by Westend61 / Getty Images.
A close friend was going through a terrible time one summer. As she cried to me on the phone in her lunch break or over coffee at the weekend, I tried to be the best friend I could. I told her to focus on the friends and partner who love her, suggested therapy and exercise to alleviate her stress, and gave her advice as to what she might say and do to change her situation.
I’ve always prided myself on being a good listener. Maybe I’ve got one of those faces: partners, friends, colleagues, even strangers at the bus stop seem to want to confide in me. This year I started volunteering for a charity that provides fortnightly face-to-face, confidential listening sessions for people. I liked the idea that lay people such as myself could be trained, with professional support, to use our compassion and ears to help a fellow human being in distress.
On day one, in my first training session, I realised to my horror that I wasn’t a very good listener at all. All the habits that I thought made me good at it, all that advice I was giving my friend, was just getting in the way. Each session brought new revelations and useful lessons. Since putting those lessons into practice with my friends and partner, I’ve seen what a difference it can make. As my trainer Pam tells me, “I have seen people in severe emotional distress, feeling like the only way is down. But they talk and cry, and I just listen. Verbalising their emotions helps them see things more clearly. Being listened to makes us feel valued.” It makes the listener feel valued, too. There are several ways to approach a difficult conversation (the general rule is, say less than the other person). Here are a few:
How to Listen to a Friend Who is Down
The first step, Pam says, is being aware of the barriers. If your friend is feeling low, even expressing sympathy can get in the way. “We think it’s helpful to say, ‘I know exactly what you mean, I went through something similar…’ but that’s you talking about your own feelings, rather than allowing your friend to tell you what it’s like for them. When a person wants to express their pain, your experiences aren’t relevant to them.” A similar, common mistake is to leap to offer advice before being asked. “Giving advice is not listening, and often it’s not helpful,” Pam adds. “It shuts people down. If you feel a responsibility to fix your friend’s problems, relinquish it.”
The hardest habit for me to break was the instinct to turn the conversation round to the positive. It took a while for me to understand that if a friend is in a dark place, the most compassionate thing we can do is to climb down into that place and sit with them for a while. “If a person trusts you enough to talk about their distress, trying to cheer them up is like shutting them up – you are dismissing and trivialising their feelings,” Pam says. “Give them the space to say how bad they feel and stay with it. Swerving away from it, talking about a silver lining, can signal you don’t want to hear it.” Focus on your friend and their words. Thinking too much about your responses can be detrimental. “Sometimes, my mind’s whirring and I’m so busy thinking about what to say that I leap ahead,” Pam explains. “So I make a constant effort to calm my mind down and tune into what is being said.”
It is possible, when you know how, to say a lot without saying anything at all. “Just being a calm presence can give someone the trust and confidence to open up to you,” she tells me. Your body language should look engaged, perhaps leaning forward, and be open to making eye contact but also sensitive to people who might find it unnerving. Adopt a soft, caring voice, but beware, Pam warns: “There’s a fine line between sounding warm and gentle, and sounding patronising and pitying. Don’t talk down to anyone, just show genuine interest.”
Your most important tool, she says, is silence. “Don’t be afraid of silence; learn to hold it. Although it may feel uncomfortable to you, it won’t to them. They’re working through painful thoughts and feelings, so don’t rush them. People will start opening up if you don’t interrupt.”
How to Listen to Your Partner
The closer you are to your partner, the harder you have to work to truly listen to them, says Susan Quilliam, relationship coach and author of the Relate guide, Stop Arguing, Start Talking (Vermilion). “That security, history and intimacy – being able to finish each other’s sentences, treating your partner as if he or she is a part of yourself – can mean our listening gets a little fuzzy. There’s a kind of mutual dependency and mental enmeshment that means you really have to struggle hard to listen to your partner as if he or she is a stranger.” Quilliam estimates that most couples will genuinely talk and listen to each other for only 20 minutes a week, and that this can have a huge impact. “Other people see your public selves, a loving couple in a functional partnership, but somewhere in your heart, you know there’s something wrong: you don’t feel heard, and neither does your partner.”
There is a way back. To find it, Quilliam says, “You need to re-establish the habit that was there when you fell in love with each other, when there was nothing better than listening to your beloved explain who they are.” She suggests reclaiming 10 minutes every day when you are both alone and can sit on the sofa and listen to each other for five minutes each; set an alarm to go off at the end. She calls this one-way listening, where one partner is given all the focus, so the listener can allow his or her mind to settle without thinking of what to say next. “This way, when your partner really needs to talk, your listening muscle will be trained.”
How to Listen at Work
Milee Brambleby, a workplace mediator, describes a common scene in offices around the country: Fred is unhappy about his treatment by another colleague and asks to discuss it with his manager, who simply tries to placate him. Fred demands that his colleague be sacked. “When people who want to be heard instead have their feathers smoothed, they get louder in their frustration, bigger in their assertions, and more extreme in their demands,” she says. “If we don’t listen effectively, we miss the opportunity to resolve the issue. The biggest thing I want to change about British industry is how we feel about the phrase ‘We need to talk’. It’s perceived as negative and threatening, but if we’re truly listening, it is a positive thing.”
First, you need to give the person plenty of time and space to express their feelings – which might mean scheduling a meeting for a later date if you don’t have time straight away. Once the person has started talking, focus on what they’re saying; when they come to a natural break, ask clarifying questions to make sure you’ve understood. Brambleby explains: “This signals very clearly – what you’re saying is important to me. In the workplace, it’s always a question of listening and being seen to be listening.” Formulate your questions in a way that doesn’t sound aggressive: “What do you mean by that?” can sound attacking, while “Explain to me what’s behind that” sounds encouraging. Use your colleague’s words to reflect back what they’re saying, even if it means swearing: for example, “You’re telling me Carole is a fucking bitch. What is making you feel that way?” Brambleby explains that this can be particularly effective, because it might be the first time that they have listened to themselves. Mirroring their own language can shock them into questioning why they have had such an extreme reaction.
How to Listen to Your Child
“The impulse to explain things away and deny our children’s feelings is very powerful,” says Adele Faber, the author of How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk (Piccadilly Press). The temptation as a parent, Faber explains, is to go straight into comforting mode. If our son says, “Daddy nearly killed me when he took that splinter out”, we say, “Oh, it couldn’t have been that bad”, but we should say, “That sounds as if it really hurt.” “You’ve got to tune into the feelings behind their words and make an effort to recognise them,” she says.
One particular word that gets in the way of that is “but”. “Parents often begin with an empathic statement, then add that little poison pill,” Faber explains. “The word ‘but’ tends to diminish or erase what went before, as in, ‘You sound so disappointed about missing Julie’s party, but it’s only one party.’ Instead of butting away the feeling, give it full value.” She suggests instead prefacing the statement with “even though”, as in, “Even though you know it’s only one party, you’re still so disappointed to be missing it.” That way, you credit your child’s intelligence and make your own point without dismissing theirs.
If there is a regular pressure point when it is impossible for productive listening to take place, for example leaving for school, Faber suggests sitting down at a calmer time with your child to ask how things could work better. “They can come up with ideas, while you write them all down – the silly and the sensible ones. You can work on the list together and decide which ones you both agree on, then post it on the front door.” That way, everyone feels listened to, and you’ve arrived at a solution together. The impact will be immediate, she says: “When a child feels listened to, he or she is ready to listen to you. The minute there is acceptance of the child’s feelings, their whole body relaxes.”
How to Listen to Someone Who’s Angry
“I love angry people,” Brambleby tells me. “They’re much easier to work with. Over the last few years, I’ve realised that people who seem angry and aggressive are probably feeling frightened, frustrated and powerless. I’m only 4ft 9in, and when I’ve got a big shouty man in front of me, I find it hugely helpful to remember that at the root of his behaviour is fear.” Her advice is to let that person be angry. If it’s in the workplace, you may need to move to a private room, but don’t try to restrain them. “Give them time. Eventually – sometimes it’s seconds, sometimes minutes, but rarely longer – they will have said what they need to, to get that raw emotion out. It takes courage to do that, because we are frightened by strong emotions. But in my experience, it is the only effective way to deal with anger.” When the tirade is over, you can ask questions to clarify what it is that has angered them.
If your partner is angry with you, Quilliam says, “It’s impossible for you to give good clear listening in that situation. Before you can listen, you might need time apart, so your partner can calm down, or you may need to have a shouting match and then hug.”
Then you can get on with the job of listening.
Moya Sarner volunteers at The Listening Place, which provides face-to-face support for people with chronic suicidal feelings