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Knowing How to Listen

Alexandra Verreault ,

How many times have you felt powerless when faced with the suffering of another person? How many times have you looked for the right thing to say, the right gesture, or the right attitude? How do you cheer someone up without seeming dismissive, or show your compassion without being over the top?

There is no set answer to these questions. There is no universal recipe. But there is some general advice that can help you and guide your reactions.

Support the other person by being present

You don't have to take on the role of a therapist to support someone who isn't doing well. You can be present in other ways. Invite them out for a hike, a coffee date, or an evening with friends. Don’t hesitate to create opportunities to spend quality time with the person and, especially, be careful to propose activities that won't make them feel worse. For someone who's going through a hard time, it can help to simply feel that they're not alone and that they can count on you to take their mind off of things when they need it.

Don't trivialize or invalidate what the other person is telling you

It isn't funny, it isn't nothing. The person’s concerns are legitimate even if they don’t seem logical to you. They feel what they feel for very personal reasons such as their past, life experiences or personality, and in order to be there for them, you must, first, not judge them. Of course, this doesn't mean that you can't be funny, try to make the situation relatable or de-dramatize it. However, be careful with your words. If the other person doesn't really laugh, stops talking, get angry or starts downplaying their worries to quickly change the subject by saying “you're right, it's not important,” or “don't worry, it's no big deal,” your words may not have had the intended effect.

Pay attention and be empathetic

Even if several little gestures can offer significant support, sometimes the other person just wants to talk and be listened to. If that's the case, and if you’re comfortable doing so, lend them an ear, and truly listen without interrupting. Don’t filter their confidences through your own prism of values or experiences, simply greet them with openness and empathy. Give the other the opportunity to confide in you and let them feel their emotions. If they're angry, let them be angry; if they need to cry, let them cry. Be present for them.

Refer them to the appropriate resources

If you don't feel capable of being present for the other person, if you feel that their suffering exceeds what you can handle, or if you sense that they aren't well, but aren’t confiding in you, you can talk to them about the available resources. Point them toward people you know they trust (suggest they talk to their spouse or a friend, for example), to a family doctor, to the CLSC, etc.

Above all, be sincere

In all cases, the best tools to deal with these situations is sincerity and kindness. Be genuine with the other person, rely on your desire to help and allow yourself to react naturally. Pay close attention to what they are going through and their reactions, and remember that if you think you said something wrong, you can always try again. It's often better to say the wrong thing than to say nothing at all, because even if you're being awkward, at least you're present.

Alexandra Verreault

Psychologist, Development Assistant - Clinical division

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