Listen to what the person you are helping is actually communicating to you. Listening skills lie at the heart of helping those with mental health difficulties. It's important to realise that even those who would identify their strength as something other than listening can learn how to listen more effectively. Quite often we listen in a 'passive' rather than an 'active' way. This can result in the person who is speaking to us feeling that we are not interested in what they have to say.
'Active' listening includes:
- Having an open posture. This means sitting or standing facing the person speaking, with arms uncrossed.
- Maintaining good eye contact. This doesn't mean staring the other person out! But good eye contact shows that we are listening and helps the other person feel that they are being heard.
- Non verbal communication. This includes nodding, saying 'a-ha' or other ways of showing, without actually speaking, that we are listening and following what is being said.
- Verbally showing that we have been listening. We can do this by repeating back something that has been said, or by summarising. For example, saying it sounds like you are feeling this... shows that we have listened and understood.
- Asking open rather than closed questions. Closed questions are those which just require a yes or no answer. This does not encourage people to open up and talk about their difficulties. Open questions, such as 'how do you feel about that?' allow the speaker to further explore issues and to talk about what has been going on for them.
- Not interrupting or feeling you have to give advice. Our instinct is often to say 'well, in your situation I would do this....' However, it is often more beneficial to encourage and facilitate the person to find the answers for themselves and to take responsibility for their own decisions. It is also good to allow the person to talk at their own speed and not to interrupt because we think we have something pertinent to say. Allow them to finish speaking and then make your comment or observation.
We are much more effective as helpers if the person we are helping knows that they have been heard.