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Lend Me Your Ears: How to Support Loved Ones through Active Listening

I still remember being sixteen, shivering in a cold sweat when my friend told me about her mom’s struggle with mental illness. It wasn’t so much her words that haunted me, but rather a nagging thought in my own head as I listened to her speak. How was I supposed to respond when I’d never gone through anything so challenging? I couldn’t dig up any words of wisdom, so I sat in silence, watching the twilight drain the hues from our skin.

At last, I coughed up a measly, “That sucks.”

Several years and counseling trainings later, I still cringe at my younger self’s response. That said, I’ve realized I’m not the only one who has a hard time listening fully and responding empathetically when others come to me for support. It’s simply not a skill taught at school. So, this week’s challenge is for those of you who’ve also felt that pang of uncertainty when someone entrusts you with their vulnerability – those of you who want to become better supporters and listeners. Each day of the week, you’ll be learning a new, versatile active listening skill to incorporate into your conversations.

Before we begin, what is active listening, really? Essentially, it’s a skill set for engaging empathetically and respectfully with someone while they’re speaking, so that they feed heard, understood, and not judged. Neurologist and educator Judy Willis gives a wonderful overview of the value of active listening. Sold? Let’s get into it.

Day 1 – Learn about Yourself: To get an idea of your strengths and weaknesses as a listener, spend your first day tuning in to your conversational habits. Do you tend to nod along when the other person talks, or let your gaze drift off? Do you find yourself interrupting the other person? How often do you give advice, especially when it hasn’t been asked for? What kinds of questions do you ask? Jot down your obserations so you can track your improvement throughout the week.

Day 2 – Demonstrating Attentiveness: Listening is far from passive. When someone speaks, you want to affirm that you’re paying attention and that you care. To show your engagement, you can use verbal cues (mhm, I see, I hear you, that sounds rough, thank you for telling me) as well as physical cues (facing toward the other person, uncrossing your arms, nodding at key points).

Day 3 – Asking Open Questions: To fuel a conversation, ask open questions, which begin with who, what, where, when, and how. Open questions allow you to probe for more information in a nonjudgmental way, and allow the speaker to elaborate on their situation with fewer constraints. For instance, ask “How did you meet X?” instead of “You didn’t meet X at the club, did you?” The former lets the speaker tell the story of how she met X, while the latter could lead her to feel defensive. If you’re having trouble generating open questions, here’s a list to help you get inspired.

Day 4 – Clarifying and Paraphrasing: A good listener demonstrates that they’ve understood what’s been said. You can reflect what you’ve heard by paraphrasing the speaker. At natural breaks in the conversation, use a couple of sentences to summarize what they’ve said and ask if you’ve gotten it right. For instance, something like this will do: It sounds like you’ve had a rough week at home and it’s taking up a lot of your energy. But you feel like your manager isn’t respecting your work-life balance. Am I understanding correctly?

Day 5 – Expressing Empathy: We all know it feels good to feel empathized with, but empathy can be a vague concept and thus hard to express. In addition to all the active listening skills listed above, you can express empathy by drawing on your shared experiences with the speaker. Now, this doesn’t mean telling them you know how they feel about the death of a parent because your pet hamster died last year. However, you can mirror their emotions in your language: That sounds really frustrating. I’ve been there too, and it also took a long time for me to reach out for support. Remember, you don’t need to have had the exact same exeperience to understand how someone else is feeling.

Day 6 – Offering Support: Support is not one-size-fits all. While some people might just need a listening ear, others could be searching for some encouragement, motivation, or advice. None of us our mind readers, so it’s always better to ask: What do you need from me right now? I’m stopping by the supermarket later, what can I grab you? How do you feel about making a plan together to help you get through this week? Try your best not to give unsolicited advice; however, if you think your friend is in a crisis that endangers their physical safety, don’t hesistate to call emergency responders.

Day 7 – Putting it Together: It’s not every day that someone comes to you for support, but we don’t need outstanding situations to be outstanding listeners. Active listening can be applied in all conversations, so take these skills and apply them with whomever you talk to, wherever you go. That said, it never hurts to offer to listen if someone sounds like they need an ear to borrow. It’s as simple as: I’m here for you and ready to listen.

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