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How to be a better listener: 5 top tips for positive communication

Clare is one of our trained Shout Volunteers, there to support people in crisis at the other end of a text conversation. In this blog, Clare shares five key learnings for becoming a better listener to help support others.

In moments of personal crisis, reaching out for help is one of the bravest things anyone can do. But it can be a daunting prospect, and during a time of vulnerability and distress it’s understandable that many people in need face doubts, from the fear of being judged to concerns about trusting the person with whom they’re about to share their innermost thoughts. The warm and empathetic tone of a supportive voice can therefore be a welcome relief during the initial stages of a conversation, helping that person to feel more secure and willing to open-up and engage.

Active listening is crucial to achieving this and is one of the most valuable skills anyone can possess. As such, it forms a cornerstone of every Shout interaction. Active listening means taking the time to hear and truly understand what someone is saying, helping to build rapport, make a connection with the texter, and create a space where they feel comfortable expressing what they are going through – which for many can be the first time they have shared their thoughts or feelings with anyone.

Listening to truly understand a feeling or situation, rather than to just respond to it, isn’t as easy as it sounds. The urge to rush in and offer advice, suggest ways to fix things or share basic words of consolation is natural, but these approaches may result in people feeling less understood and more likely to shut down.

So how can we become better active listeners? Here are five key actions that make a difference in every Shout conversation and that you could apply too:

  1. Take the time to reflect on their experience – when someone has the courage to confide in you, reframing in your own words what they have shared can really help to demonstrate that you’ve heard and understood their thoughts and situation. For example, “What I’ve heard is that you feel worried about yesterday and you’re not sure what to do next. It’s understandable to feel concerned and confused.” These moments of empathy help to build rapport and trust, which is especially important in the early stages of a conversation.
  2. Keep follow up questions open-ended – as the conversation progresses, gently encouraging the other person to elaborate on their thoughts, feelings and experiences rather than asking closed questions that require a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer can help to open the discussion up further. This also offers them the space to only share what they feel most comfortable talking about. Just simple prompts such as “How do you feel about that?” can support them to work through their thoughts and feel less pressured or judged.
  3. Use reassuring and empowering language – responses that validate feelings and thoughts and emphasise strengths can be very powerful and provide further affirmation that you’ve listened, you’ve heard, and have connected with who they are and what they are going through. Phrases such as “It makes sense to feel that way” and “It’s understandable to be frustrated” helps them to realise that their thoughts and feelings are normal and natural. Think about how the person has expressed strengths, resilience or ways of coping and remind them of this. For example, “I can see that you have managed to find ways to get through your fears before; that shows real strength”, will remind them that they have the inner resilience and drive to lean into their challenges.
  4. Let them take the lead – as you support them to reflect on their situation and think about next steps, it’s important to avoid adopting an advisory tone. Conversations in which a person feels understood and supported are likely to be more effective than those when they are directed to a solution. Prompts can help them to move the conversation in the right direction, such as “What do you feel would help you best right now?” and “How do you think you can achieve this?” But ultimately, they will feel stronger and more confident by identifying their own goal and solutions.
  5. Give them space – underpinning all of the above is one of the most important attributes in the art of active listening: patience. Conversations in times of crisis can create a sense of urgency that drives an impulse to help that person as quickly as possible, sometimes by interrupting them to offer reassurance or recommend quick fixes. This is natural, but ultimately puts the focus of the conversation back on you and gives the impression that you haven’t taken the time to really hear what they’re going through. Remain calm and attentive so that you give the person you are talking to the experience of feeling heard and understood, supporting them in finding a way through their distress.