The coronavirus pandemic has brought with it a massive and widespread spike in anxiety. To cope, family members and friends are leaning on each other for support and guidance — looking for ways to alleviate one another’s stress and fear, and sometimes simply seeking help to get through the day. We all need someone to listen to us, and fortunately, you don’t have to be a professional therapist to listen well and help improve someone’s state of mind.
“If you are fully listening to someone who is upset, whether that’s face to face or virtually, it allows that person to feel connected and less isolated,” Vanessa Jung, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in Torrance, California, tells Thrive. Listening with empathy is a gift. “We can’t solve the world’s problems, or an individual’s problems either,” says Jung, “but we can give someone the benefit of our time and our full presence.”
She’s talking about active listening, or deep listening, which involves restating a paraphrased version of the speaker’s message, asking questions when appropriate, and maintaining nonverbal conversational involvement (like nodding your head when someone is speaking on a video call.) A study published in the International Journal of Listening shows that when people were met with active listening, they felt more understood than participants who received either advice or simple acknowledgements.
How you listen can make a real difference. Here are seven simple keys to deep listening.
“If you catch yourself getting anxious as you listen to someone who is upset, slow down your breath rate,” advises Jung. Getting drawn into the overwhelmed feelings of the other person won’t help your own mental health. “Slow breathing calms down your fight or flight response, telling your body you are safe,” she says. It helps you stay centered. If you feel out of balance after listening, Jung recommends this free app Breathe2Relax, which was designed to teach relaxation skills to veterans.
If you constantly interrupt or interject, “you’re missing the chance to deepen a connection in that moment,” says Jung. Sometimes we interrupt because we’re finding what the person is talking about unsettling. At other times, says Jung, we just feel a need to say something, “playing tennis with our words, volleying the ball back and forth.” But during this difficult time, listening should be about “catching the ball in whatever direction the person is hitting it, without trying to hit it back,” says Jung.
Don’t give advice unless you are asked for it
It’s tempting to offer words of wisdom and assume we have the “right” answers. Often, though, all the other person needs is a space to express their fears, and all we need to do is listen. Nothing has to be solved.
If you’re on the phone with someone, which limits non-verbal communication like nodding and eye contact, Jung suggests making an encouraging sound like “um-hum,” or saying something like, “That sounds difficult,” to let them know you are there for them, without disrupting their train of thought.
Reflect back what the person is saying
Back in the ’40s, renowned psychotherapist Carl Rogers, author of the seminal book A Way Of Being, pioneered “person-centered therapy,” which involves empathy, warmth, and a technique of mirroring back what his clients were saying, without offering any advice. The theory is that people usually have all the answers within them. Simply being listened to, says Jung, “while also hearing their words paraphrased back to them, can give them the space to go ‘inside’ and discover their own wisdom.” You can also check that you are accurately hearing what they have to say. So, if a friend says, “I’m frightened things will never get back to normal,” you could say, “I hear you saying you are worried about the future, right? Tell me more.”
If you are not really listening… stop!
When you know you are distracted and not able to be present for someone, or you’re feeling overwhelmed yourself, “that’s a sign that you are human and need to take care of yourself,” Jung says. If that happens, let the person go and arrange to call back later when you can give them your full attention.
Listen to yourself
It’s important to go within and connect with what is important in our lives. In Thrive’s founder and CEO Arianna Huffington’s words, “to nourish, replenish, and refuel ourselves.” In order to really listen to what’s going on inside, activities that you find meditative — like working in the garden, taking a long shower, walking in nature — can help bring about important realizations about how you’re really feeling. And taking the time to slow down and look inward can also result in the simple but powerful awareness that you, and your feelings, matter.
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