4 Ways to Be a Better Virtual Listener (Even on an App)

tethr is a peer-to-peer support community for men. The app provides a safe space for men to have open and vulnerable conversations, with the hope of improving the well-being and mental health of men (and all other humans) in the process. As part of my work at tethr, I get to explore a variety of subjects […]

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tethr is a peer-to-peer support community for men. The app provides a safe space for men to have open and vulnerable conversations, with the hope of improving the well-being and mental health of men (and all other humans) in the process. As part of my work at tethr, I get to explore a variety of subjects related to community, mental health, and support.

Social interactions have changed a lot in the last few months, but our need for human connection hasn’t. In the tethr community, we’re always looking for ways to better support each other.

One important, but often overlooked, aspect of support is listening. It’s easy to think of listening as automatic but there’s actually a lot more to good listening, especially with body language taken out of the equation. With physical contact limited, it’s more important than ever to think about how we interact online and how we can make those interactions more meaningful.

Below, we’ve asked a few experts for advice on how to take listening skills, the ones that make people feel truly supported, from the real world to the virtual world.

Consider The Format‍

There’s a ton of different ways to interact online so where the conversation takes place may impact the kind of listening required.

When face-to-face with someone, good listeners tend to make encouraging gestures and sounds (such as “mhm”) to show that they’re invested. If you’re talking in real-time online, like on tethr’s private peer to peer support messaging, it’s equally important to show that you’re engaged. Jenifer Merifield, Personal Excellence Mentor and Coach, suggests trying outphrases like “go on…” or “I’m hearing you” to let them know you’re listening. Asking questions is another great way to show that you’re interested and open.

Jenifer also pointed out that receiving a ton of advice on a thread can feel like being bombarded, “it can cause someone who was really brave to show up and share, to shrink.”

On open threads or forums, like tethr’s main page, many people have the opportunity to share advice and wisdom. That’s fantastic, AND it can also be overwhelming for the receiver. In situations like that, it’s extra important to hold space and acknowledge the writer’s feelings.

Acknowledge First‍

Which brings us to the next point: good listeners respond with an acknowledgment. When you’re responding to a lot of information at once, like a long post, it can be easy to forget the person behind it. No matter where your response is leading, it should begin by holding space for the emotion or experience expressed by the writer.

Jenifer points out that sometimes people just need to vent and feel heard. In cases like that, a “wow, that sucks” can actually feel more helpful than unsolicited advice.

Dr. Mark Goulston, Psychiatrist, Executive Coach, and Author of “Just Listen” echoes the importance of letting others vent, especially amongst men, where it doesn’t feel as natural: “something that women intuitively understand, but that most men don’t, is the power of opening up and sharing upset feelings to relieve stress,” he says. “And when that stress is relieved, men spontaneously feel calmer, more centered, and better able to come up with and follow solutions that can help them deal with stress more effectively in the future.”

At tethr, the orange emoji 🟠 can be used for this type of acknowledgment. In our community, it is a quick and easy way to say, “I hear you, I’m with you.”

After speaking with advisors such as Goulston and Merifield, Addison Brasil, tethr’s VP of Brand and Impact, started using the emoji in the tethr digital world, explaining that, “it’s a way to let someone know you hear them, you’re listening to them and you acknowledge the courage and vulnerability of the share — even in the case where one man might not agree with another.” 

Word Choice Matters‍

The words you use can help the writer feel heard and understood as well.

Jenifer suggests choosing words the writer actually used themselves. If they mentioned something was difficult or that they felt devastated, a good response might include, “that must have been difficult,” or “wow, I can see how you felt devastated.” It’s an easy way to validate the other person’s feelings and show them that you’re really invested.

This type of validation may have a huge impact on the writer. Dr. John Ogrodniczuk, Founder of HeadsUpGuys, says “knowing that others are struggling with issues similar to yours may help relieve the burden of feeling lonely in one’s experience of mental health difficulties.” When you make an effort to make the writer feel understood, you’re helping them to feel less alone. 

Read Between the Lines ‍

Take time to understand what the writer needs.

“What’s important is to really hear what they’re writing. I don’t mean auditory, I mean really hear the message behind what they’re saying,” Jenifer says. “Some people will just naturally jump in with solutions.”

But that isn’t always the role you need to play. The best way to know what someone needs, is to ask. If you’ve got advice they haven’t asked for, Jenifer suggests saying something like, “are you just wanting comfort and a ‘we’ve got you’ kind of thing or do you want ideas, if so I have an idea for you.’”

In his discussions around surgical empathy, Dr. Goulston suggests a similar approach — ask more about what they said.

The act of asking for permission or more information will make the receiver more open and show them that you are invested.

To join a community of more than 1000 men, download tethr in the Apple App Store today.

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