Let’s Talk AND Let’s Listen
Since 2010, Bell Let’s Talk Day, at the end of January of every year, has been raising awareness and combating the stigma surrounding mental health in Canada. After nine years, the message seems to be taking hold.
I’ve noticed much more awareness and empathy in the way people talk about mental illness. More mental health supports are available in the community. From prevention like mindfulness training in elementary schools to apps for dealing with depression to mental health first aid courses for managers/supervisors. There are many well-known, respected people who have publicly shared their own stories of struggle and management of mental health challenges.
I think we’ve done pretty well but we’re not done.
It’s time to shift our focus to “Let’s Listen” while maintaining the talking. In the process of writing this blog, I googled “let’s talk and let’s listen”.
This is what came up. YES…EXACTLY!
What I’ve noticed in my coaching and grief recovery work is how often people tell me they are being heard for the first time and it feels safe enough to talk out loud about the mental health challenges they may be experiencing. The truth is I’ve learned to listen and it’s taken effort on my part. It doesn’t seem to be human nature to really listen.
Here are some of the most typical responses from “listeners” when someone starts to share their true feelings and struggles:
- I know exactly how you feel. I remember when my cat died and all I could do was……… (shifting attention to ourselves is not listening).
- You should meditate, exercise, make your bed, journal. (Advising is not listening).
- Let’s go for a drink, dessert, pedicure. (Encouraging distraction and avoidance is not listening).
- At least it’s not as bad as such and such’s situation. (Comparison is not listening).
- You should just quit that job if it’s causing you that much stress. (Attempting to fix the situation is not listening).
- You’re over reacting. You’re being too sensitive. You’re just making excuses. (Judging is not listening).
- Isn’t it time you just got over it? (Putting time limits on struggles is not listening).
So what are a few simple (but maybe not easy) shifts to Let’s Listen?
- Really focus on the person’s words rather than thinking about what you’re going to say. Simply repeating some of their key words shows you’ve heard them.
- Let them share at their own pace and don’t be afraid of silence. Just being a heart with ears can feel like significant support.
- It’s ok to guess or ask about an emotion of feeling, but deliver it with curiosity and not as a diagnosis. For example, “It sounds like you’re really sad” rather than “You must be depressed”. Even if you guess wrong, it may spur the person to identify the actual emotion. It can often provide relief to a person when they have a name for a feeling.
- An alternative to saying “I know how you feel” is to say “I can’t imagine what that’s like for you”. It acknowledges you understand the uniqueness of their struggle while still being there for them and keeping the focus on them.
- Know the limits of the support you can provide and don’t be afraid to seek additional support (for both of you).