Listening is half of every conversation.
An often-underestimated skill, becoming a better listener is something we’re all capable of. For many of us, it can also make the prospect of conducting conversations about mental health much less intimidating, as we frame the conversation as an exercise in listening rather than talking.
This article is a How To Guide for developing our listening skills and explores the integral role that listening plays in supporting the wellbeing of others.
In the world of work, being a good speaker tends to be prized over being a good listener. In fact, of the 214 books on Blinkist* about communication, 72 are dedicated to speaking, whilst a comparative 14 are dedicated to listening.
But we’re here to turn that conjecture on its head and let you know that, in situations where a colleague is opening-up to us, listening is an absolute superpower.
The simple act of listening actively gives others the feeling of being better understood – giving them the space to unravel their thoughts, safe in this vulnerable moment, and being perceived without comment or judgement.
Allowing an individual to speak freely (perhaps with a gentle prompt here and there) can help them get out what’s in their head and, with this, potentially diffuse some of its negative power.
And for you, the listener, participating in conversations this way can not only help you build trust with and develop a deeper understanding of the person, their actions, and the issue at hand, but also ascertain whether they are at risk and how they might need further support.
Many think of listening as somewhat passive but, in our experience, there’s usually a lot going on between the ears!
Active listening requires us to be focused, open (non-judgemental), and empathetic (to make a sincere effort to try and understand the speaker and put yourself in their shoes).
Often, in conversation, other people’s words spark thoughts that we feel compelled to express – either immediately (interrupting the speaker), or we hold tightly onto them, ready for our turn in the conversation. However, this often means that we’re ‘switched off’ to what the person is really saying, fixed on our own train of thought instead.
This is what we try to avoid in active listening. Instead we should be present in the moment, unconcerned about saying in the ‘right thing,’ and approach the conversation with genuine care and compassion.
DO be present in the conversation: make comfortable eye contact, gesture that you’re listening through your body language and occasional prompts like ‘Mm’ and ‘Uh-huh.’
DO ask open ended questions, allowing the individual to elaborate and maintaining the focus on them and their story i.e. How long have you felt like this? What can I do to support you?
DO listen to more than just the individual’s words: listen to their tone of voice and observe their body language in order to more fully understand what their feeling.
DO consider where the conversation is being conducted, especially if you are the instigator. This should be somewhere that feels comfortable for the individual and that offers some privacy.
DO check in on them regularly after your initial conversation. You can offer both practical support (e.g. help with workload) and emotional support (e.g. here to chat when you need).
DO signpost them to professional support if appropriate – make the gentle suggestion that they can talk to their GP, a counsellor, or professional therapist if struggling.
DON’T coerce someone to elaborate or open up further if they are not ready to. Just let them know that you’re always there to talk in the future.
DON’T try to fix their problems or find solutions. Giving unsolicited advice can often make people feel worse when, really, they just need to share and feel heard.
DON’T try to perform the role of a therapist. It is not your job to make suggestions as to why they’re feeling a certain way or to ‘connect the dots’.
DON’T pass judgement. It is often the case that, when we’re struggling with our mental health, there are already elements of self-criticism or shame in the mix. Your role is not to moralise.
DON’T interrupt. It’s fine to have long pauses in conversation – the individual may just be thinking or lost for words – but do feel free to clarify your understanding of what’s being shared occasionally by summarising or repeating points.
DON’T compare their situation to others. Just listen, ask open questions, and find out how you can best support them.
Learn more about approaching the topic of mental health at work in our blog, Starting a conversation about mental health in the workplace , in which we zoom out a little and explore when and how to best approach someone about their wellbeing.
Or go even deeper and earn yourself a Mental Health First Aider qualification with our virtual open course – recommended for people managers, HR teams, and for staff that have an interest in mental health and wellbeing.
Many aspects of holding a conversation about mental health can feel daunting – listening, facilitating, or even opening-up yourself. But the more we talk openly around the subject, the easier it will become. You don’t need to be an expert or to have the answers, but your compassion and support can be invaluable
*Blinkist is an online library of the best books in non-fiction, summarised into their key messages and clear takeaways. These numbers are correct as of 23.11.22.