Listening sounds like something that’s really simple. After all, we do it every day, don’t we?
However, when it comes to helping a loved one who is struggling with anxiety or depression, there’s a lot more to being a good listener than you might think.
Since there’s a lot of evidence that being listened to (and heard) is one of the most important things people who are struggling with mental health need, it’s imperative that we do learn to listen. So how does one listen well? What does it take to become a really good listener? We’ve got some tips, advice, and information right here.
Listening Is Enough
The first thing you need to get past when you want to learn to listen to people who have mental health trouble is that listening, all on it’s own, is enough.
Too often, we see listening as the start of a process. We listen to find out information, and then we use that information to create a plan and solve a problem.
Often, however, people who have anxiety and depression have problems that you can’t solve. They don’t need you to create a plan. Listening to their thoughts and feelings is the plan, and it’s okay not to have any answers after they’re finished speaking.
Through listening, you also provide a backboard for the speaker to discuss ideas and feelings, and often you may find that they come to the conclusion that they need to by themselves. They’re able to properly think about what’s bothering them as they need to explain it to you and do not skip things they might if they just think about it.
Types of Listening
If you’re like most people, you probably think that listening is just, well, listening. You might think it’s the same thing, no matter how or where you do it. In reality, however, there are around seven defined styles of listening, which are:
- Informational listening – the kind of listening you do when you want to learn something at work or school
- Discriminative listening – our “natural” listening style, which takes not only words but also tone, inflection, body language and more into account, so we can “read between the lines”
- Biased listening – listening specifically for information that will confirm your own assumptions or beliefs
- Sympathetic listening – the most emotional form of listening
- Comprehensive listening – focuses specifically on the words you hear
- Empathetic or therapeutic listening – is listening that focuses on the person speaking’s problems
- Critical listening – the kind of listening you use when you want to really analyse the information you are hearing
When you are learning to listen to people who have mental health problems, anxiety or depression, you probably want to focus on empathetic and sympathetic listening.
How Listening Can Help People With Mental Health Problems
Sometimes, the biggest problem that people who suffer from mental health conditions like depression and anxiety face is that they feel alone. They feel like there is no one in the world who understands what they are going through, or that care about their feelings.
Endless studies have connected this feeling of loneliness and isolation with worsening depression and anxiety – which is why so many people with social phobias also have depression or anxiety.
People are social creatures. We need to have other people around us, and we need to know that there are people who care about how we feel and our wellbeing.
Sometimes, all it takes to show someone that you do care, and you are concerned about them is sitting with them, actively listening to their feelings, and reassuring them that you still care about them. Knowing there is someone there who cares and will listen without judgement can be so incredibly powerful for someone who is feeling lost and alone, and it doesn’t require any special skills.
How to Help People After You Listen
As humans, we’re hardwired to want to help and to fix things. Which means, sometimes, when you’re listening to someone who has mental health problems like anxiety or depression, you might automatically switch into problem solving.
While it’s noble to want to help in this way, it’s not always as helpful as you might think it is.
If the person you are talking to mentions self-harm or thoughts of suicide, you should absolutely direct them to a professional resource that can help. Never dismiss these kinds of statements as overly dramatic or attention seeking. Many people who do commit suicide will talk about it before they make an attempt, so you should always take these things seriously.
If the person you have been talking to mentions practical problems that you can help with, then by all means, offer assistance or advice. Maybe they need a different living situation, or their job is making them miserable, or something else. If there are solutions to those kinds of problems, and you can help, you can mention the options you can give them.
As far as everything else goes, you really need to play it by ear. Sometimes, you can’t fix a problem. Sometimes, it’s just a feeling or an emotion. Of course, they are valid, but you can’t tell them away. Recommending that someone with a mental health condition speaks to a professional is always a good idea, for that reason. Professionals can help to address things that we might not know how to.
What NOT to Say to Someone with Mental Health Problems
Very often, when you are learning to listen to people with anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions, the answer is not to say anything aside from agreement, acknowledgement or questions.
Often, people don’t want you to solve their problems. They just want to share them.
However, there are also things you can say while you’re listening that might make things worse, so be sure to avoid them:
- Never tell someone it’s all in their mind – even if it seems like it is, it’s real to them and they don’t need you to minimise their problem
- Don’t tell people to calm down – if they could calm down, they would
- Don’t minimise their feelings by saying something is not a big deal – it might not be to you, but you’re not the one who is struggling
- Don’t ask why they are anxious or tell them not to worry – again, if they were able to do those things, they wouldn’t need to talk about those feelings!
- Try not to tell them you know how they feel – even if you’ve been in a similar situation, everyone reacts to things differently, so we never truly know exactly how someone else feels
- Don’t tell them to breathe, relax or take it easy – this merely shows them that you don’t understand how they feel
- Don’t make unsolicited suggestions – you might think they’re helpful, but if they don’t solve the core problem, they might not be
It can be very hard not to let your own thoughts and opinions cloud your reaction when you are listening, but that’s exactly what you need to do.
Whether you agree or not, think something is trivial or not or think you have the solution, does not matter. This is not about you, what you think or how you feel. Your job is not to solve the problem – it’s to listen to the problem and to help the person understand that you are there for them. Every time you try to talk them out of their feelings, you will do the exact opposite.
As you can see, there’s a bit more to listening in a mental health context than you probably thought. We’re not all professionals, and we can’t help or solve every problem, but all of use can make a difference. Very often, the first step in getting help for mental health problems is talking to someone who listens well. So, if you want to be the first step in someone’s journey to better mental health, hopefully these tips will help.