Listening skills are very important, particularly when you’re talking to someone about their mental health.
Have you ever told someone about a problem you are having, or shared about a difficult experience, and they jump in and tell you exactly what you should do to fix it? Maybe they lecture you about how you should look for the good in the negativity? How does that make you feel? Unheard? Unimportant? Stupid? Because surely if it was as simple as clicking your fingers and applying their solution, or reframing it as they suggest, then you would’ve already figured that out yourself, right?
When a friend, colleague or loved one shares a problem with us, many of us jump in with solutions or look for silver linings.
Hearing someone’s bad news and seeing their reaction may feel distressing and uncomfortable. We want to reassure them. It’s tempting to want to make them feel better about the situation so we might try to rush them to a resolution; we want to tell them it’ll be ok; that this is an opportunity in disguise. This can risk the person not feeling heard; their reaction not being validated. In doing so, we risk disconnecting with them at a time they may need our support most. Before opportunities can be seen to arise out of a challenging situation, there are many emotions to be processed, possibly: grief, anxiety, panic, worry, distress.
To help support someone, instead of glossing over their emotional reaction or rushing them towards feeling positive, this simple four-step process can help us to communicate more effectively:
- Explore options
- Plan for action
We need to acknowledge that their reaction
(fear, sadness, rejection, etc.) is real for them. Acknowledge that their reaction is true and valid. Hear it. Don’t try to tell them they’re over-reacting or that it’s not that bad. You can’t control how someone else feels.
Express empathy for their feelings. Tell them you are sorry for their distress; or sorry they are sad; or that their shock must feel so unsettling.
Allow the time for them to explore the options that suit them. Encourage them not to make rash decisions straight away but, some pragmatics might be worth considering. Some people will need support with the pragmatics of what to do immediately.
When they are ready to explore their options for moving forward, hold that space with them and discuss a range of possibilities. Consider the pros and cons of each option. If they are struggling to identify any for themselves, consider offering three options you can identify and see what, if anything, resonates with them.
PLAN FOR ACTION
When they are ready to test out some of the options, plan for action with them. They may or may not need your support with this. Engage as appropriate for the boundaries of your relationship, respecting their decisions.