How to really listen

Sometimes, all someone needs is to be listened to.

If you notice someone behaving differently or struggling in some way, it’s a good idea to see if there’s anything you can do to help. You might be worried about saying the wrong thing, but simply asking ‘How are you going?’ or ‘What’s been happening?’ shows concern and support. Sometimes, all someone needs is to be listened to - it can be a big help.

Becoming a good active listener takes practice. But what does it really mean?

Genuine intent and active listening

Active listening means giving your full attention to the person speaking. It means having a genuine intent to hear that person’s story. Put your phone away and focus on what they’re saying, rather than thinking about what you’ll say next.

How to start

There’s no perfect way to start a conversation – approach them in a way that feels comfortable. You don’t need to offer advice or have all the answers. Here are some ideas:

  • ask the person how they’re feeling in general
  • gently and supportively explain changes you’ve noticed in their behaviour
  • encourage them to talk about what’s happening in their life – avoid questions which may only need a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.

Show you care by listening respectfully

  • Listen without judgement – don’t interrupt with advice on how to ‘fix’ a situation, and don’t feel as though you need to solve their problems.
  • Make sure you understand – repeat back to the person what they’ve told you and ask them to clear up anything you don’t understand.
  • It’s okay to not know what to say – just be honest with them and let them know that you care. For example, you could say, ‘I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out together.’
  • Sit comfortably with silence – there’s no need to fill every ‘awkward’ gap in conversation.

What to avoid

There are a few things to be mindful of avoiding when actively listening to someone:

  • don’t rush them – give them the time and space they need to talk with you comfortably.
  • don’t stigmatise – for example, don’t tell them what they’re experiencing ‘isn’t normal’. It’s normal to experience mental health challenges.
  • don’t dismiss them - don’t tell them to ‘snap out of it’ or ‘stop worrying’ because it’s not that simple. Saying something like ‘you’ll be fine’ isn’t very helpful.
  • don’t blame them for how they’re feeling.
  • don’t pretend to be an expert – you don’t need to solve their problems or have all the answers for them.

Instead, let them know you’re grateful to them for being honest with you - ‘Thank you for telling me and trusting me’ - and remind them that you’re there for them.

If things sound concerning

  • If you are concerned that someone you know may be thinking about or is talking about self-harm or suicide, and they are under 25 years old, call Kids Helpline on 1800 51 1800. 
  • Alternatively, call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.
  • You can also offer to help the person make an appointment with a health professional or find other information.

Listening can be a huge help

Being an active listener can make a massive difference to someone who is going through a tough time. It’s okay if the other person doesn't want to talk - respect their choice but don't let it throw you off. Keep reminding them that you care and are available to listen to them.

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