Although there’s a shift towards more open conversations relating to mental health, anxiety, stress and general wellbeing, and an increase in campaigns that shine a light on the fact that many of us simply aren’t ok, there’s still a missing piece of the jigsaw.
While the focus is and needs to be, on the speaker, there’s very little advice out there for the listeners, for the people that we as individuals, family members, colleagues and friends, choose to open up to.
It’s not always going to be easy, or possible to open up to a stranger. And with the idea that these conversations should be happening more openly rather than behind the closed doors of a therapist’s office, comes the expectation that it’s not just professionals who will be hearing about and managing our candidness.
So what can we do to ensure that someone we love and care about chooses us to open up to and confide in feels listened to and understood?
1 Be present 💫
Starting a conversation takes courage, opening up and sharing the fact we aren’t ok takes guts. And the only way to receive these conversations is by being present. This means fully engaging in the conversation, not being distracted by phones and devices, by your own experiences and thoughts on what you’re hearing. When someone chooses to open up to you, put away your phone, give them your full attention and make eye contact so they know you’re listening. Remember they have chosen to talk to you about something they are going through so try not to turn the conversation around to be about yourself as that may be interpreted as you not caring about what the other person is saying and lead them to withdraw.
Think about your body language as much as your verbal cues, shifting and becoming restless indicates boredom and will likely lead to the speaker feeling like an inconvenience and withdrawing from the conversation.
2 Use open responses to draw out the conversation 🗣
Rather than responding with your thoughts and opinions or with questions that close down the conversation, respond in a way that enables the speaker to continue to share, a way that prompts them to dive deeper into the conversation. Use questions that require more than yes or no as answers and always encourage them to ‘tell you more’. This enables the conversation to develop naturally under the control of the speaker while you nudge them along, empowering them to pause, think, reflect and ideally expand into sharing what they are going on.
3 Encourage further conversations 👂
Having just one conversation is unlikely to lead to a miraculous ‘recovery’ If someone has chosen you to confide in, ensure you’re checking in afterwards to see how they feel, to see if they need you to hold more space for them. Having opened up to one person, continued dialogue with them is going to be easier than starting new conversations so it’s important to let that person know you’re still there to listen. Effective listening relies on trust being built between the speaker and the listener and as with any trusting relationship, this may take time.
4 Create a safe environment 💕
Giving the speaker time to think and collect their thoughts enables them to feel safe, appreciated and supported. Use non-judgmental listening to provide space and time for the speaker to collect their thoughts, formulate what they are trying to say and communicate their feelings. Don’t feel you need to fill a silence, this silence allows reflection and peace to slide into the dialogue.
5 Encourage tricky conversations 👥
In many cases, we choose to open up to our friends and family so it’s likely you will know the person well and have an inkling of whether the person you have just asked ‘are you ok?’ is actually ok or not. Trust your intuition and encourage the conversation away from a generic ‘good thanks’ response. Don’t push, just nudge and be aware that it may take several attempts for the speaker to understand and accept that you really do want to know how they are rather than are just trying to be polite.
6 Don’t expect the person to simply ‘get better’ ⛑
Acknowledging and sharing that we aren’t ok isn’t the same as telling someone we have the flu. We aren’t asking for your remedies that will cure us. Be mindful of the fact that once someone has chosen to confide in you, that is just the beginning of their own individual journey into opening up about what they are going through. People experiencing anxiety, stress, mental health challenges do not need to be fixed, they need to be supported along their journey of navigating life.
As humans, we are surrounded by and engaged in, conversations all the time but actively listening to the words we hear is an acquired skill. A skill that once developed will go a long way to creating a healthier society in which we can support our friends, peers, colleagues and family members showing them that we care about what they are experiencing.
This #WorldMentalHealthDay, it’s time to step up and listen well.