How to listen well to someone in distress
If someone you care about tells you they are depressed, anxious or in a crisis it can be hard to know how to respond. Often we want to help but do not know what to do. Perhaps we feel like we do not have the right answer and so it is easier to change the subject or start talking about ourselves. Just because you are not a counselor or a therapist I do not have anything to offer someone who is depressed or anxious.
The truth is you have a lot to offer. You have something you can offer that no therapist can for their client. People need value affirming connection. It is amazing when someone has someone in their life they can trust with their feelings, will be there for them in those crucial times, and they do it just because they care. When people know they have someone to turn to, it lowers their stress and makes them more resilient to trauma.
Therapists have a different role, we may understand better questions, or activities to try, or exercises to walk through, but it is contractual. We need to charge to live, pay rent and keep learning. It is not that we would not want to be friends with the people we meet. A lot of the people we get to know are terrific. We help lots of people but we cannot be what a friend can be.
You can have a different and powerful role? So what can you do? You can show you care by listening well and being there. While our first thought might be to offer advice, being a caring friend helps lighten the load enough for people to figure things out. People really like being heard. It sends the message that someone cares about them, that they matter, and that they are not alone.
What does it look like to listen well?
Be sensitive to the comfort level of the person talking.
They might want to talk, they might not. Sometimes the time and place are not great but another time and place might make them more free.
I once asked someone who was going through some grief. What kind of friend do you need right now? Do you want to talk about what you are going through or would you like the opportunity to talk about something else and take a break from what you are going through? On that occasion we had the kind of conversation we would normally have. Sometimes people need presence and that is it. You might be the person to talk to, and you might the person to go shopping with. Both are needed.
Ask open-ended questions and summarize what you just heard in your own language.
Q. How’s it going?
A. Well my brother just ended up in the hospital, he was in a car accident.
Q. How are you holding up with that?
A. I am pretty stressed out, it’s been hard to sleep?
Q. It’s keeping you up. Do you feel comfortable telling me what is worrying you?
A. Well, it was a serious accident and I’m worried he might not make it, he has a wife and kids, he might be disabled.
Q. You’re concerned about his family?
A. I’m really worried about them, she is on mat leave, and his kids are young, like, really really young.
Q. You’re worried how they are going make it through without him, as a provider and a dad?
A. Those kids are so young, I can’t imagine what it would be like growing up without him.
Q. You really care about those kids?
A. Yeah, they are wonderful, and they are just babies. They need a father.
By staying open-ended and following the speaker you are giving them a chance to say what they need to say. The best way to help, especially in a crisis situation, is being a kind, affirming, gentle presence and reflect back the words you are hearing.
This helps create what some call emotional attunement. When people feel emotionally connected, they feel emotionally supported. In listening you may hear something that the speaker has the wrong impression of. Those corrections can be made, but they will be better received if the person feels supported and fully heard.
Offering empathy, meaning that you identify with their pain, can be helpful. The listener in my example might say “I’m really worried too.” As long as the focus doesn’t switch from the supported to the supporter.
Another tip would be to avoid using the word “why.” In my example I wrote “Do you feel comfortable telling me what is worrying you” instead of “Why are you worried.” The word why is a little more cognitive and it can be interpreted as critical. “Why are you worried” can be interpreted as “Why are you worried, you shouldn’t be.”
We tend to believe what people need is a better way to consider the situation. I have found that if people feel emotionally supported, it eases the distress enough for people to make the right adjustments to their thinking.