If you’re like most people, you probably consider yourself a pretty good listener. But you might not be as good as you think you are. It’s true—in their 2013 book, The Plateau Effect, authors Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson point to several studies that show most of us actually “stink at listening.”
But there’s good news, says Jerilyn Dressler, the executive director at Calgary’s Distress Centre: We can all become better. She should know—the Centre provides 24-hour crisis support through professional counselling, help lines and online chats, so listening, and training people to listen, is a big part of her job.
“When we first start training new volunteers for our help lines, we see a natural tendency to jump to solutions with callers or with each other,” she says. That usually means the listener has jumped to conclusions based on personal experience or pre-conceived notions. There’s an unfortunate outcome to that misstep: it may inadvertently alienate the person they’re trying to help.
So, how do you really listen? Dressler says it’s important to have your friend focus on the main problem, and really allow them time to talk about its impact. You want to ask questions that will further shed light on the situation: What was the last straw? What was the thing that caused you to bring this to my attention? “You want to focus on the feelings and emotions surrounding the situation and make sure you’re demonstrating empathy,” says Dressler.
Once you think you have a grasp of the issue, you can start paraphrasing some of the problems and how they are creating issues in the person’s life—but continually check in to ensure what you’re saying is accurate. “Always offer an opportunity for the other person to correct you, because you may have gotten it wrong,” Dressler says.
Even once you understand the person’s issue, it’s best to be careful when dispensing advice. Instead, have friends come to their own conclusions. This is because suggesting change before someone is ready can be damaging. “People might not be ready to think about making changes and by suggesting one, you are actually pushing them into an uncomfortable place,” says Dressler. “This can make them back away from you as a confidant.”
People who are in distress often feel alone and unheard, especially when dealing with sensitive topics like suicide or abuse. If that’s what your friend is going through, keep in mind that their family or other friends may react strongly, or even judgmentally, which makes them feel like no one is really listening. In these cases, it’s important to respond in a non-judgmental way and direct them to a professional service like the Distress Centre’s crisis line or 211 program to get help.
And don’t think of crisis support as a last resort, says Dressler. It’s a service that’s open to anyone who needs an impartial or non-judgmental perspective, and it can make a huge impact.