Mental Health - Are we ready to listen?

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In light of World Mental Health Day, we’ll be posting different pieces concerning mental health over the next few weeks: mental health and young people, mental health in the workplace, safeguarding and mental health, our top ten tips for mental health, any topic we feel the need to raise. So keep a look out and, please, join in the conversation.

When deciding what mental health topic to choose for this article, I started to panic. Where do I even begin? There are so many potentials. But then it came to me. A topic I think is often overlooked: the difficulty of truly listening.

We’ve come a long way from the days where we couldn’t talk about mental health at all. It just wasn’t done. And now we are slowly but surely, thanks to fantastic campaigns and movement around mental health awareness, beginning to open up and be willing to talk. But, as a colleague said to me the other day, is there any point in talking if no one is able to truly listen?

Listening is difficult. Having an open discussion with someone is almost a step into the unknown! You don’t know what they are going to say or share, what direction the conversation might go in. We might worry that we won’t be able to help or give a solution, we worry that we might not understand – the list goes on, and these are all especially true when talking about mental health.

Mental health is unpredictable and it varies from person to person. It can be hard to open up and talk about it, and it can leave the speaker feeling vulnerable. That is why it is important to treat anyone who is willing to talk with respect; they don’t just need people who aren’t afraid to talk, they need people who will truly listen. Remember, people want to tell their story, want to be heard.

So, how can we do that? First, there are three conditions we can try and embody.

Be genuine

Consider this: would you want to share your troubles with someone who was inattentive, uninterested? Probably not. So it is important that, as a listener, you are yourself and fully present in the conversation. This means that there is no personal or professional facade, you are authentic, warm and trustworthy. It is noticeable if you are automatic or not genuine in your responses and this might result in the person shutting down and being unwilling to continue.

Be empathetic

By being empathetic, you’ll be casting aside your own way of experiencing and responding to the world and, instead, trying to understand the world as the speaker experiences it – ‘walk in their shoes’, as they say. By embodying this and acknowledging what the person is feeling, you can help them feel like they are truly understood.

Be accepting

It is often hard to share or admit to things if you are worried that someone won’t understand you, or will judge or turn against you. But by showing acceptance, you will show the speaker that they have worth regardless of what is said, done or felt, and that there is no judgement towards them. It is an act of valuing them for themselves. This can help increase their self-esteem and sense of worth.

Secondly, there are practical active listening skills you can employ as well. Through actively listening you can help establish a connection, build trust, understand differences, and help the speaker re-experience and understand their feelings. These are all consequences that can have a positive impact on both the speaker and the listener. These skills will be even more effective if you use them in conjunction with the three conditions listed above.

Non-verbal communication

This can play a huge part in a conversation. Research has shown that if there is conflict between what is being said and the facial expressions that support it, it is the facial expression that will be believed. Positive body language is important: an attentive and relaxed posture, interested facial expressions, steady but soft eye gaze and nodding.

You need to be ok with silences and spaces

This is a difficult one and we often want to jump in and fill that pause in conversation. But it is important to give the person time to think and to express themselves as they want. This last point is important, as it is also common to try and guess what the other person is trying to say. It can be fantastic when you guess right, but can be incredibly disheartening and frustrating when wrong, so it is best just to allow them to speak in their own time and way.

Don’t feel the need to offer solutions

Again, this is a really tough one and one I struggle with myself. I don’t think I am being useful unless I am offering solutions! But often what is the most effective is just showing understanding and sympathy towards what they are going through. As I said before, often they just want to be heard.

If they do want solutions or advice, it is best to form the solutions with the speaker themselves, rather than prescribe it to them. This way it is more likely to be a solution with which they are comfortable.

It is also helpful to ask open-ended questions, and reflect back and summarise what you think they are saying. The questions help aid clarity, and reflecting and summarising help to check your own understanding. Both add to a positive and meaningful conversation.

All of these, or a combination of these, will indicate that you are truly listening and understanding what is said to you. And, really, what is more comforting than that?

We will shortly be releasing a suite of mental health courses which will offer more advice and insights like this. If you’ve found this helpful, please keep a look out for the courses, or if you want to find out other ways we can help you with your mental health and wellbeing strategy, please contact us at [email protected] 

Author: Carol Butler

Carol is an Instructional Designer who is passionate about creating meaningful content. Away from work, you’ll find her either reading, hiking or treading the boards at her local theatre.