Listening is especially important when we are trying to support a loved one during a period of illness.
We might think we're a good listener but during an emotionally charged conversation, our minds can become clouded with our own emotions, which in turn can block us from truly listening to each other. If a friend or family member has ever remarked to you, "You're such a good listener" it is very likely that you've been demonstrating one or more of the following aspects of active listening. In italics I have added some training notes with the hope that they'll help you to develop your skills further:
1. Face the speaker, and maintain eye contact for long enough without being intimidating - instead take a few seconds break and look at their mouth, their left eye or right eye. Keep an open posture and lean in to the other person slightly - this conveys you are interested and switched on to listening; avoid crossing your arms as this is a defensive posture. Do not look away as this might convey you are in discomfort or bored. This element may indeed cause discomfort to some novice 'active' listeners and so try practising these skills covertly when you are relaxed socially with friends or family members.
2. Listen to non verbal cues, i.e. facial expresssions, tone of voice, gestures and body language. A recently bereaved family member with a big smile on their face, with crossed arms and hunched shoulders maybe hiding what they are really feeling.
3. Avoid interruptions as this can be frustrating for the speaker. It also communicates to them that what you have to say is more important. Allow for pauses and a few moments of silence before jumping in with your own words. This gives the speaker time to gather their thoughts and allows for self reflection. If you are a well practised 'interruptor', try breaking the habit by behaving in the opposite way with friends and family members.
4. Listen without judging and avoid jumping to conclusions as this will hinder your listening to additional parts of the conversation. Also, don't assume you know what's going to be said next. For five minutes - practice with a close friend the art of just listening to what they are saying. Ask them for feedback on the quality of your listening, and swop over and sense what it feels like to being listened to without any interruptions.
5. Keep your mind clear and don't plan what to say next. It is impossible to actively listen and prepare what to say at the same time. Do the exercise in point 4 for five minutes, and swop over. Experience how it feels to hold back on what is burning away inside you.
6. Indicate you're listening, e.g. nod your head, smile and make affirmative gestures such as "yes" and "uh huh" to indicate you are tuned in - which in turn, encourages the speaker to continue. Being distracted with your phone or playing with your hair demonstrates the opposite and will discourage the speaker from opening up to you. Practise this aspect in exercises 4 and 5 with a close friend or work colleague, and get feedback, swop over and feel what it's like to be really listened to.
7. Don't impose your solutions or opinions. This helps to create a safe space for the speaker to vent their feelings rather than pressurise them to respond to your solutions. If you really must share your solution offer it up as a possibility by asking, "would you like to hear my suggestion?"
8. Stay focussed. Choose an environment that has very few or no distractions. Ideally your phone should be switched off or silent during the conversation. Try repeating their words in your head as they say them - this will help you to concentrate and will reinforce what they're saying. Practise this skill also in exercises, 4-6.
9. Ask questions. They can help to convey that you've been listening and have understood the speaker. Choose closed questions when you just require a "yes" or "no" answer, e.g. "Did you mean this?" or use a clarifying question to verify "Can I just check that I understood what you were saying about...". Also, use open questions when you want someone to open up a bit more, e.g. "how did that make you feel?".
10. Paraphrase and summarise. This is also known as, 'reflecting', and basically means, repeating back what you have just heard, which indicates that you have been listening well. For example, "it sounds like you're saying..." or "it feels like you are saying..." This is an excellent skill to practise with close friends, using the examples in points 4, 5 and 6. Practise for 15 minutes, get feedback and swap over to experience what it feels like to be actively listened to.
Active listening takes lots of practise but I'm confident that by practising these skills with a friend you will become a more effective listener during 'real life' dialogues.
Whether or not you take on the skill of active listening I would like to conclude that supporting a person with an illness can be as simple as seeing them as a human being rather than as a sick person - after all - deep down they are still the same person you use to know before their illness. Lending them your shoulder to cry on and sitting with them (even when you are worried and in discomfort yourself) during a stressful diagnosis appointment are simple gestures of unconditional love and support.
If are struggling to support someone with an illness I can offer a listening ear and relaxation techniques to help you cope in this difficult time. Please call me on 910 665 601 for a short complementary consultation to discuss your current situation and to make an appointment. You can also send me an email to, firstname.lastname@example.org