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How to really listen and connect to others

Feb 16, 2020

The news about Caroline Flack this weekend was very saddening.  One aspect that I picked up on in this very sad case of someone who chose to take her own life at the age of 40 years old, was that she had tried to reach out to speak to friends about how she was struggling.  However, she shared that she was not truly listened to, and this made her feel even more alone in her pain.


I think many of us can relate to this.


We are social creatures and actually our conscious thinking-brain communicates with our subconscious mind through talking out-loud about a problem (in case you ever catch yourself talking out-loud about a problem to yourself and wonder if you are going crazy).  The most immediate healing way we can sort through our worries though is to talk to a trusted friend or a close family member.  This can be a crucial intervention step, one that many of us may find ourselves in, and getting it right as the listener can make a big difference.  How we listen to others is so important. 


Here are some great pointers to really make a difference when we listen to people we care about who are going through pain.


  1. Be an active listener


Active listening is an essential, lifelong skill that will enable you to really connect with others in life, to gain others’ trust and enable others to feel understood and accepted.   It reduces conflict and can actually inspire positive shifts within others.   It is a skill that can be learned and practiced with effort.  Active listening denotes the difference between hearing someone and listening to someone - listening involves an ability to unpack the meaning of words, and to read the silences in between. 


How to be an active listener:


  • Pay full attention to the speaker.  Remember when someone is talking to you about something they are upset about, concerned about, it is because they trust you.  So be trustworthy with this.  Notice their body language, make eye contact and take in their tone of voice and their whole energy to really listen to what is going on for them.  Words are only a small part of how we express our hurts, take in what else is going on.  


  • Reflect that you are listening with your body.   Turn towards the person, lean forward, make eye contact and encourage them with nods and leading noises.  This enables the speaker to feel safe to go on and open up.  In serious situations a person may only reveal a little of how they are feeling initially until they feel safe to really open up, reflective body language really helps with this.


  • Reflect back first.  Before responding with what you want to say, make sure you have understood what the speaker wanted to get across, by repeating their words back to them.  This ensures you have understood the intent and shows them that you have really listened and heard.


  • Now respond.  Try to remember that this is someone who is hurt, and cares and trusts you enough to speak to you about this.  Try to be non-judgmental.  Remember that when people are upset they won’t always be communicating in their clearest way - as fear will be playing a part.  Be honest, but be respectful in your responses.  How you respond can be the difference between establishing further trust and connection between you to reach a potential solution together, or eroding that trust and worsening the situation for the person in pain.



2) Inactive Listening traps


Inactive Listening can cause real harm.  It can erode trust in relationships and ensure that loved ones don’t choose to come to you with a problem in the future.


Ways we inactively listen:


  • Not giving your full attention.  Glancing at a mobile phone, tv screen or around the room at other people - these all signals that you are not really interested in making the speaker feel they have your attention and connection.  If you are afraid of saying the wrong thing to someone in pain, you can still actively listen, and then you can thank the speaker for their trust and then be honest that you don’t know how to respond but will support them in finding someone who does.


  • Don’t interrupt.  There is no quicker way to make a person feel unheard and that you are disinterested in their pain by talking over them.  Even if there is something you don’t agree with, if someone has trusted you enough to try to open up to you about something that is hurting them, respect that trust enough to hear them through.  To listen fully and wait until they are finished before asking questions or adding your thoughts.


  • Don’t listen just to respond.  Listening to respond is the opposite of active listening and is one of the most damaging ways we can harm our relationships.  Remember that if someone has trusted you enough to speak to you about something difficult, if you are then formulating your response as they are speaking, you cannot be listening and taking in what they are trying to communicate.  Bet your bottom dollar your friend will feel even more upset and feel disconnected from you as a result.  


  • Don’t rush to make it about you.  It may seem like you are ‘empathising’ with someone when you say ‘yes me too’, but when this is someone who is trying to open up to you,  ‘yes me too’ can be a form of invalidating their hurts, ignoring their pain and just making it all about you.  If you are in doubt Brene Brown has a great video about compassion and empathy


  • Don’t try to fix it.  Many of us feel so helpless when someone close to us is in pain that we may try to ‘fix’ it.  If this is your instinct, make sure you actively listen first and then ask if the speaker would like your help.  Most importantly respect their response.  People who are in distress often want to be listened to as part of the process of trying to figure a problem out for themselves, they don’t want or need to be rescued from it.


  • Taking a wounded or attack response position.  ‘I can’t believe you just said that’.  If you really want to destroy the trust that someone has in you, to ensure they won’t talk to you about something difficult they are struggling with or won’t try to respond to issues with you again in the future, then go take the wounded or attack response stance.  Not only is this is an immature way of communicating with others, but it may indicate where you have unhealed trauma of your own that may be causing conflict in close relationships.



It takes practice to get these things right but when we try it can make such a difference in someone’s life, and can really help to form close trusting relationships with others throughout life.


Thank you for reading.


Much love,


Kate x