You have probably been in a situation where a friend of yours has wanted to talk about something they’re facing and you just don’t know how to respond. Sometimes all you have to do to make someone feel better by the end of a conversation is listen.
Active listening helps people talk through their problems, however difficult they may find it. This skill will come more naturally to some but not others, so here are some helpful tips about how to listen actively. Although you will find a range of tools below, your main aim as an active listener is to make sure your friend feels cared for and understood, giving them the space to fully explore what is on their mind.
Reassurance is a simple first step to comforting someone who may be feeling isolated due to a distressing event. Affirmations such as ‘that must have been really difficult’ are a good place to start without trying to relate to their personal experience as this is not always helpful. Asking open questions is important as it allows the conversation to continue rather than becoming an interrogation of yes/no questions, allowing space for the speaker to explore their thoughts in a manner they feel comfortable doing so. These questions will allow you to clarify aspects of their feelings that will help both you, the listener, and them, the speaker, to better understand the situation. Summarising can also be a useful tool to ensure you have correctly understood the situation, whilst accentuating the fact that you have been listening attentively. Reflecting your friend’s vocabulary is useful, especially surrounding emotional words, as a feedback of their own words can help them see their feelings differently.
Sometimes it can be challenging and even upsetting to simply listen to your friend’s problems without trying to solve them. Nevertheless, when someone comes to you with a heavy heart, they may just want to vent, all the while knowing the rational solution to their problem, but not being quite ready to confront it head on, and that’s okay. This is where being a non-advisory listener comes into play: by being a supportive, non-judgmental and non-advisory listener, you’re providing someone you care for with a safe space to explore their worries and letting them come to their own conclusions in their own time. Finally, just make sure to treat your friend as you would like to be treated - stay off your phone whenever possible and give them your undivided attention. Your body language and visible focus speak volumes, so keep those in mind.
Now this may all seem quite daunting imagining yourself following all these steps next time someone comes to you with something on their mind. Though empathy comes easily to some of us, active listening can be more challenging and can take some work implementing. How about next time you find yourself in this situation, focus on using these tools and see how you both feel after that?
Here at Exeter Student Nightline, we’re trained to provide a confidential, anonymous, non-judgmental, non-directional and non-advisory space for all students at the University. Our service is open every night during term-time, from 8pm until 8am and is run by students, for students. We offer a range of communication platforms you can contact us on such as a phone line (number is on the back of your student card), Instant Messenger and Skype (links to these services can be found on our website). Students can call up about a range of concerns, from academic stress to relationship problems, as well as just wanting to chat to someone on their way home or requiring any information. We’re here to listen, not lecture.