We communicate every day in many different situations, but the best conversations happen when everyone involved feels respected and heard.

So how do you know when to stay silent and listen carefully, and when it’s time to ask questions or offer advice? It’s a tricky balance.

Patiently waiting your turn to speak isn’t always easy, especially when you’re itching to have your say. Yet there are times where managing to truly listen, without interrupting, can have a positive impact on a person’s wellbeing.

Listen to understand

While someone shares their thoughts and feelings, often the most helpful response is to provide space by listening. Becoming a good ‘active’ listener takes practice. But what does it really mean?

Active listening means that instead of thinking about what you’ll say next, or letting your mind wander, you are totally focussed on the person speaking.

Listening isn’t just hearing another person speak – remember this is their story and everyone’s experience is unique, so try to understand what they tell you. Aim to:

  • Listen without judgment – don’t interrupt with advice on how to ‘fix’ a situation
  • Notice the sound of the person’s voice, facial expressions and body language
  • Sit comfortably with silence – there’s no need to fill every ‘awkward’ gap in conversation
No need to be an expert

If you notice someone behaving differently or struggling in some way, it’s a good idea to see if there’s anything you can do to help. You might be worried about saying the wrong thing, but simply asking “How are you going?” or “What’s been happening?” shows concern and support.

There’s no perfect way to start conversations – approach them in a way that feels comfortable. You don’t need to offer advice or have all the answers. Here are some ideas:

  • Ask the person how they’re feeling or explain changes you’ve noticed in their behaviour.
  • Encourage them to talk about what’s happening in their life – avoid questions which may only need a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.
  • Be careful not to offer solutions or shut down the other person’s experiences (saying something like “You’ll be fine” isn’t very helpful).
  • Repeat back to the person what they’ve told you and ask them to clear up anything we don’t understand.
  • If you’re concerned about a person’s safety, or they talk about self-harm or suicide, suggest they seek support. You can also offer to help them with making an appointment with a health professional or finding other information.

Being a mindful listener can make a massive difference to someone going through a tough time. And if the other person doesn't want to talk, respect their choice but don't let it throw you off – it’s okay to keep reminding them that you care and will listen to their story another time.

Related reading: How to check in with someone

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