Let’s talk about listening

Karen Bath
CEO and Founder, Resilient Pilot

There’s an irony in the title of this article. In this month’s conversation about mental health, we are encouraging more mindful listening.

In around 60 AD, Epictetus, the Greek philosopher, said: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we talk.” However, today many of us forget that we possess one of the most powerful and effective tools to help someone experiencing a mental health crisis: listening.

How often do you listen to someone? I mean, really listen? 

Listening is one of the most important aspects of effective communication. In aviation, and in particular in CRM/TEM/NOTECHS frameworks, we advocate active listening: nodding encouragingly, paraphrasing, taking notes etc. But if someone has reached out to you for mental health support, or if you’re concerned for someone’s wellbeing, try to go one step further by employing empathetic listening. All that many people experiencing distressing emotions and thoughts want is someone to talk to who will truly listen: an empathetic listener.

Our focus at Resilient Pilot is on our mentees’ agenda, not their mentor’s. Our volunteer mentors are encouraged to spend more time listening than talking when they are working with a mentee. Their approach is to listen and then signpost a mentee towards a resource that, between them, the two parties have identified may be of help. This cannot be achieved if we don’t properly understand what the mentee really needs. Empathic listening helps us work towards that deeper level of understanding.

But first, let’s define ‘empathy’ – all too often confused with ‘sympathy’. However,
empathy, unlike sympathy, does not necessarily mean we agree with the other person or see things from the same point of view. 

Instead, it requires us to imagine what it feels like to be the person in front of us. I can think of no better person to help us understand empathy than researcher and author, Brené Brown: “Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘you’re not alone’.”

It’s also worth watching her short, animated video which nails it in a simple snapshot here. You’ll never say ‘I know what you mean/how you feel’ again, unless of course you really can walk in their shoes. Even then, how do you know you really can? Don’t risk it, stick to listening.

An active listener may pass judgement and engage in debate, but an empathetic listener should remain non-judgmental. Empathic listening is a technique of listening and questioning in a structured way which enables you to gain a deeper intellectual and emotional understanding. It takes active listening techniques that all important ‘one step further’ in order to better support colleagues, friends and family members.

Listening is naturally tricky

Humans speak at a rate of 125-150 wpm but our brain can comprehend and listen at 600 wpm, so our mind is underutilised and we struggle to keep our minds on topic. We hear one or two phrases and inadvertently create separate conversations. So, the first step to empathetic listening is to focus on keeping your mouth shut! Don’t be too keen to interject and debate or relate to what they are saying. Imagine your lips really are sealed. 

Also, take notes during the conversation to ensure you don’t forget your thoughts. Remember to breathe and consciously pay attention. But allow time for them to talk (remember: two ears, one mouth). I have Post-its around my computer screen reminding me to LISTEN. PAUSE. THINK. They have really helped.

When someone is struggling mentally, they don’t want to hear how you dealt with something similar. They need you to hear what they are feeling and experiencing. They need space to talk. And they need to be listened to.

‘Let silence do the heavy lifting’

One of our volunteer team, Sam (who is an experienced coach), lives by this great phrase: ‘let silence do the heavy lifting’. Think about that statement – it puts all the emphasis on staying silent. 

Sometimes all someone wants is to be listened to and, as long as they trust you, they will keep talking, but you need to allow space for that. It may be that they are simply trying to phrase what they want to say next, so a few moments of silence can allow that space to think and expand.  

Of course, there are moments when you do need to speak. It’s important to keep the speaker from being defensive, and asking direct questions can come across as challenging. So, when the time comes for you to speak, think of that widely-used question answering technique, ‘reflect and deflect’, but focus on the ‘reflect’. Repeat their words back to them, but avoid asking direct questions. If the speaker says ‘I am unsure of what to do’ then all you need to do is repeat that back: ‘you are unsure of what to do’. It is very likely that this will encourage them to expand and open up further. 

If the speaker asks for your input, you need to show respect for their trust in you by being honest. Do bear in mind, though, to phrase your response carefully to avoid knocking their confidence and inhibiting them from continuing to share. 

But just as in active listening, it is important to look out for the non-verbal cues, too. What is the speaker not saying? It could be equally important as what they are saying, if not more so. Non-verbal signs like repeated deep breaths, sighing, fidgeting, looking away, covering their mouth, staring ahead or blinking a lot are tell-tale signs that there may be more they want to say or are holding back from saying. 

Summary

  • Be supportive, kind and caring.
  • Listen carefully and without judgment. Input only occasionally to show that you’ve heard and understood. 
  • Be a mirror: reflect back by repeating key phrases to encourage expansion.
  • Look out for non-verbal cues; what’s not being said. 
  • Demonstrate that you respect their trust and confidence in you.
  • Let the silence do the heavy lifting

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