One thing that we often take for granted is listening. When someone listens to us, we feel valued and understood. When we listen to others, we have an opportunity to learn more about the person we are listening to and connect with them, and our relationship becomes stronger.
Listening is a crucial skill for mental health. When we feel heard, our burdens feel lighter. I don't know why, but I know that's true - even though what we are facing or feeling doesn't change, sharing it make it feel less heavy. When we listen to others, we feel a sense of connection and belonging - we feel that we matter to others and they matter to us.
I think we have lost the skill of listening sometimes. We are constantly distracted, especially by devices. I realize I talk about this a lot, but it's also very relevant to my life so I'm assuming I'm not alone and others face this too. We have the ability to always be doing something, and I think that also makes our thoughts constantly cluttered and bombarded too. Because of this, we aren't always very good at listening when someone is talking to us, and on the flipside we can also feel unheard for the same reasons when we are trying to share something with others. So, I want to share some ideas on how we can become better listeners and how that will benefit our mental health.
Put your device down
When you're spending time with someone, find ways to put your device(s) away for as long as possible. It's too easy to be distracted by notifications that may come in while you're talking with someone, or to pick your phone up to do a quick Google search and then get caught up in whatever else you find on your phone. If you look distracted, you probably are and you won't be able to process what someone is trying to tell you.
Another idea is to put your phone on "do not disturb" so you won't receive any push or sound notifications. You can still have your phone by you, but it won't visually or audibly distract you from being present.
Make eye contact
This sounds silly, but hear me out. Sometimes I start looking around at other things while I'm listening and I have to actively choose to look someone in the eyes. I don't know why that's awkward for me sometimes, but it is. But, eye contact is important! It shows the person that you are paying attention to them and your thoughts on focused on what they are saying. When we're looking around at everything else, it looks like we're looking for opportunities to dash or we're thinking about other things. Do your best to show that you are present, whether through eye contact or some other way.
This is HUGE. I know I'm guilty of this for sure, but it's so important not to interrupt someone while they're talking, especially if your interruption is unrelated or to tell your own story. You can find opportunities to share those thoughts later; let them finish! If you slip up and do interrupt, invite them to continue where they left off, but try not to make a habit of this. At times when I have been interrupted, it makes me feel that what I have to say is not valuable or important. If I'm interrupted with something completely unrelated, it tells me that they were not listening at all and I wasted my time trying to share something that was important to me.
When someone is sharing with you, ask questions to better understand their perspective and feelings about what they're sharing. This isn't an invitation to interrupt (unless you're having a hard time understanding, then maybe it's good to stop them to clarify), but asking questions can communicate that you were listening and shows that you care.
You don't have to solve others' problems for them
I think sometimes we are hesitant to be a good listener because we are afraid of being responsible for other's problems. Listening to someone and what they're going through does not mean that you need to solve whatever they have going on in their life. You don't even have to provide advice. You can listen to what they have to say, ask questions to understand, and you can empathize and offer encouragement.
In the emotional resiliency class I took, we talked about supporting others. We talked about 5 myths about helping others and I think all of them can apply to listening to someone. Here are the myths:
- MYTH #1: I am 100% responsible for providing others the help they need.
- MYTH #2: I should be the expert on solving others' problems.
- MYTH #3: There are quick fixes to life's problems.
- MYTH #4: I don't know the right thing to say, so it's better I don't say anything.
- MYTH #5: If I help at all, they will always become dependent on me.
The response to all of these myths is that we can support others best just by being their friend. From my class manual, "The greatest gift we can give others is to show interest in them, ask questions, listen with love, and help people feel safe in sharing with us."
This goes for our children too. Our children will face challenges and problems, and as their parents we will feel responsible, or even just the desire, to solve and fix their problems for them. We can't do this! We can listen, we can show we care, ask questions, and talk through possible solutions with them, but we shouldn't try to solve their problems for them. We should empower them to face their own challenges and support them as they do so. But we should always show that we are safe place for them to come and share what they are feeling and experiencing.
I could go on and on about being a good listener, but I also wanted to share a couple of tips on how someone that wants to be listened to can find better opportunities for that. Maybe that sounds weird, but I've thought a lot about this since it's something I've felt and experienced a lot in my life. So, here are a few ideas on how to feel heard:
Look for appropriate moments to share
Sometimes I get frustrated with my husband because I'm trying to tell him something and I can see that he isn't listening. The problem is actually my fault though, because I often try to talk to him when he's in the middle of something on his phone (like a text message or email). I can see that he's busy, and yet I expect him to put his phone down and listen to what I'm saying. The thing is, that's hard for him. He's focused on what he's doing and it's hard for him to break that focus sometimes. I've found that if I wait for him to finish what he's doing, then I can share with him. Or, if I tell him that I'd like to tell him something and to let me know when he's done, then he has the opportunity to finish what he's doing and turn his attention to me.
This can also work with kids. Have you seen Bluey on Disney+? I'm a big fan. Mum and Dad Heeler are parent goals for sure. In one episode of Bluey, Dad Heeler tells Bluey that if he is busy (specifically talking to another adult, but I think it applies still) and she wants to talk to him, that she should put her hand on his arm so that he knows she is there and that she wants to talk to him. He will then put his hand on hers so that she knows that he's aware of her. Then she doesn't have to interrupt him, he can finish what he is saying, and then invite her to share. I think this is a great way to help kids to avoid interrupting, but we also have to make sure they aren't having to wait forever too.
If something isn't working, talk about it
I'm sure we all have people in our lives that we've identified as bad listeners. It just happens. I think everyone has the ability to be a good listener, but some personalities will have to work harder to be a good listener. If there's someone in your life that's important to you, but you feel isn't listening well, I'd like to invite you to talk to them about it. If you notice they interrupt a lot, you can say, "Sometimes it feels like you interrupt me a lot while I'm talking, and that makes me feel unheard or undervalued" etc. Sharing how something makes you feel is important, and you can also share why it's important to you to feel heard by that loved one - why do you want to share with them? To feel more connected? Avoid accusations and being defensive. Conversations that come from a place of love are valuable, even if they can be hard sometimes.
As always, these are just some thoughts and ideas. I'm no expert, but I hope that these tips could be helpful to someone.
What do you think? How can you tell that someone is listening to you? What do you do to show you are listening?