If everyone had the skills of a therapist, I believe, the world would be a much better place. Here’s why:
Do humans really know the art of listening? In today’s divisive environment, it seems like no one cares to listen to one another, never mind learning the best way to do it. Yes, there is a “right way” to listen. Yet, despite this fact, only a select few are actually trained to use this skill.
Referred to as active listening by many mental-health professionals, it is one of the most common and effective tools in their arsenal. And there’s good reason for that. Everyone wants – no, needs – to feel heard. Authentic listening works to achieve this outcome.
But why do we have such an insatiable need to be listened to? Well, many people say it’s because we need our feelings to be validated. While this is certainly true, it’s not the only reason for a therapist to just sit and listen.
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As it turns out, it’s helpful to hear ourselves talk. And when you’re honest, healing can occur. Of course, yacking to oneself in front of someone is useless if:
One, the therapist listens to react, rather than looking for ways to help guide them to healing; and two, the person doing the talking isn’t honest with themselves and doesn’t trust the process.
Trust is cultivated by being a great listener. it builds trust because the listener can prepare a response that is focused, compassionate and on point. Warning: if the person appears irritated, short or as if one’s troubles are an imposition, it won’t matter how skilled of a listener you are – you’ve lost them.
The good news? Learning this skill is not limited to the mental health profession. You can learn it too. However, it will be all for naught if your response seems cold and uncaring. Instead, being attentive, calm and facing them with an open stance shows you are willing to receive what they are about to say. Additionally, this open posture will also lower any defense they may have, thereby increasing the odds of them being honest.
Darlene has been fighting with her teenaged daughter every day since the first days of adolescence. This is not good. Maybe it’s born out of the classic push and pull between independence and proper guidance. A very difficult balance to achieve. Just ask any parent of a teen.
She explains to her therapist that no matter what she does as a mother, she just can’t get “through to her.” Darlene adds, “Well, she comes by it honestly, I was as hardheaded as when I was fifteen. “
Using her active listening skills, her therapist decides to play a hunch: “So what I hear you saying is that you daughter is a lot like you when you were her age?”
“Yes!” Darlene answers. “And it makes my boil instantly, dealing with her, I mean. I swear, we are too much alike.”
Her therapist then says, “It must be difficult to be dealing with someone who’s exhibiting a similar behaviour. Tell me more about that.”
“Well,” Darlene says, “I hated that aspect of myself, (referring to her hard-headedness). I still do.” She exclaims “It’s brought me nothing but pain and controversy, something I don’t want for my daughter.” Darlene finishes the session by saying “I guess, it’s me I am struggling with, not my daughter?”
By actively listening, her therapist helped guide her to a revelation that Darlene was not aware of. Her part of the argument with her was manufactured by her own experiences, which is good because it’s something that she and her counsellor can work on.
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Therefore, Darlene may be so worried about what she perceives as a similar behaviour being displayed by her daughter, that she may be overreacting – triggered by not wanting her teen to face similar hardships. What’s more, she may not even realize that she is doing this. Rather, her approach may seem reasonable on the surface but in reality, is proving to be counterproductive.
In other words, she may be listening to react, and in doing so, is not hearing what her daughter is really saying or otherwise trying to communicate. In fact, her daughter may very well be reacting to her mother’s reaction. So now, no one is listening.
You can learn it too
First off, mental-health professionals are highly trained individuals. Therefore, I am not suggesting that learning the skill of listening will make you a professional; far from it. But what it can do is go a long way to help a loved one/friend feel less lonely by showing them you care enough to listen.
So, if everyone had the skills of a therapist, or at least a few, think of the good it can do! Those skills that I believe can be universally distributed are, of course, active listening, but also, the skill of providing support. And… if you genuinely care for a person struggling with a mental illness, don’t allow them to drown. Instead, throw them a life preserver. Do so by learning the above-mentioned skills.
Check out Sick Not Weak, a mental health organization dedicated to ending the stigma around mental illness.
Simplified, for everyday support, active listening can move someone towards the professional help they need. From my point of view, we are not there to insert our advice based on our own experiences, and there’s good reason for that. There are many, many things that make the person in front of you different.
Things like genetics, a person’s own level of tolerance, and whether they have a mental illness, and you don’t, are but a few factual reasons. We don’t all handle similar challenging times in the same way – we do not share the exact same wiring. Therefore, it’s a mistake to share the “I can do, so can you.”
Furthermore, you’re setting up someone with a mental-health condition for failure as soon as you say something like “That’s like me. I can do, so you can too,” or the ever popular “Just don’t think about it.” This will only make them retreat, like a turtle into its shell.
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Remember, your experience, so far as I am concerned, is irrelevant. If accept this as true, then where does this leave us? Right back to mastering our ability to listen. Knowing that your experience doesn’t matter, paves the way for truly hearing what your friend or whomever really needs to say.
While this can be a challenge, it can be done with practice. While your mind may naturally want to respond, acknowledge that – just don’t allow to flow off your lips.
Because the next step is to support them, you can ask – after hearing them out of course – “What can I do to help?”
Friend: “I’m so anxious, I don’t think I can go to my appointment.”
You: “It must be overwhelming for you when you feel so anxious that you feel you can’t go to your appointment. Can I drive you? Would that make it easier?”
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A very compassionate question. One that can only be asked by someone who actually heard the problem. And – here’s the catch – took it seriously! Again, this is made easy if by leaving one’s preconceived notions in the back of the mind. It’s not your show, you are a mere audience member until the time comes for your size-up.
Finally, if everyone had the skills of a therapist, at least these few skills, I’m guessing that fewer people would feel lonely and isolated – and supported and empowered to move down the road to mental wellness.
In crisis? Go to Crisis Services Canada
If everyone had the skills of a therapist