I’m often asked variations on this question when I do mental health training sessions - ‘what should I say when someone tells me they are depressed/anxious/suicidal?’
Behind this question is an anxiety that we will somehow say the wrong thing and make the situation worse. Also perhaps a fear that we are breaking the stigma of mental health conversations and going where others have feared to tread. This new, unchartered territory can easily make people feel unsettled.
Here’s what I’ve come to understand over the course of our my work in this area and the important lessons I’ve learned from those I’ve worked with…
Sometimes what you say matters far less than how you listen.
Conversations about mental health carry with them to power to change lives, and so it’s easy to understand why some of us feel anxious that we will say the wrong thing. But the power to change lives doesn’t just come from what we say, it comes from how ‘present’ we can be with others, how willing we are to listen to their story, to put ourselves in their shoes and to try and truly understand what they are experiencing. When someone is sharing something vulnerable with you, what they most need from you, is space to be listened to and understood.
In the series I wrote for Unmind ‘The Art of Listening’, I’m unpicking what it means to listen and why it can be such a powerful gift to give to others. Can you think of a time when you’ve really been listened to?
When I’m struggling with something, perhaps feeling in a bit of a slump, there are a handful of people who I know will give their time and energy to listen to me. The people I turn to, aren’t the ones who tell me what to do, they are the people who give me the space to figure things out for myself. They are the friends who offer their advice only when I specifically ask for it. They are the friends who, when I’m struggling, allow me to have most of the airtime, whilst they give me eye contact, positive body language and the occasional ‘go on…’. Being truly listened to helps me to build my own resources so when others are struggling, I’m available to listen to them too.
Listening is a skill, it takes time and practice to learn and sometimes, regardless of how many hours of listening you do (I do quite a bit in my job), it’s something we ALL need to be reminded about.
There’s a great quote I’ve come to love about listening by Stephen Covey: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”.
Yet what’s often needed the most, particularly when we focus in on conversations about mental health, is having our story understood by someone else. This experience enables us to make sense of our lives and to understand how we have come to be where we are now. It’s also a powerful way to help us feel connected to others, which we know is of great benefit to all of us and our mental health.
So why not try and give the gift of listening today?
You can find out more about Dr Hazel Harrison on her website here.
If you'd like to find out more about Time to Talk Day, find their webpage here.
If you are an Unmind user, you can access 'The Art of Listening' series here.