By Kyle Burke, CommUnity Crisis Helpline Program Manager
You’ve probably heard hundreds of times that the key to supporting others is “active listening.” And that the “active” part means nodding along and trying your best to not interject. You probably also know friends or family members who are amazing at hearing you out; who somehow always find the right things to say when you’re upset. Never having been described as that friend myself, I’ve always wondered how some people seem so naturally attuned to the wonders of active listening. Since joining the Crisis Helpline Services team at CommUnity, I’ve learned that some do have gifted ears, but all of us can become excellent supporters by practicing a few skills.
We teach our crisis counselors 11 core counseling skills. If you asked many of our experienced staff which they rely on most, though, you’ll find that there are four especially important skills at the heart of listening: Open-ended questions, Reflection, Empathy Statements, and Validation. I’m going to walk you through the meaning of each skill and how you can apply them in conversations going forward.
Most conversations are focused on stories, and your job in the listening role is usually to help the other person tell theirs. Questions like, “So did you tell your mom that she’s sending you waaaaaay too many texts?” gets you to the good stuff quickly, but they often presume what happens next in the story. That can prevent your talker from fully expressing their thoughts, and even backfire when the story doesn’t match your expectations. For example, your friend in this situation may now feel embarrassed because they were too nervous to set boundaries with their parent. They don’t want to disappoint you after talking about it several times.
You ideally want to give talkers freedom in their responses, avoiding questions that lead to a “yes” or “no” answer when possible. Many of us struggle with using strings of close-ended questions (like we’re cross examining someone) because we want to advance the story. One tip we teach is to focus more on feelings rather than procedure. “I remember you said that you were planning to talk to your mom. How are you feeling about it now?” You’ll notice that many good open-ended questions start with “how” or “what.” In your next conversation, try rephrasing a close-ended question by starting with these words instead.
Questions advance the story; reflections help give the story meaning. Reflections are often described as “mirroring” because they’re intended to repeat information with a bit of added interpretation. Continuing the example above, using a reflection might look like this:
Friend: I was gonna text my mom, but I felt my heart just pounding away while trying to type things out. I decided to just wait a few more days. To think it over… you know?
You: You felt ready to text her, but the anxiety got so bad that you decided to try again later.
In this example, you have roughly repeated back what your friend said and added a guess about what “heart pounding” means for them. It’s important to note that, as with any guess, you’re going to be wrong sometimes. Perhaps your friend was actually feeling intense rage rather than anxiety. The great thing about using reflections is that people often care more that you clearly heard their words than about your specific interpretations. If you’re wrong, the talker will usually just say what they were actually feeling or thinking.
Empathy statements further provide meaning by connecting feelings with their causes. For example, “You felt anxious about texting your mom because she’s been defensive before when you brought up her messaging.” The basic formula for empathy statements we give counselors is “You feel X because of Y.” There are many variations, and you’re encouraged to mix them up to avoid sounding robotic. One frequent concern we hear from new counselors is that phrasing empathy as a statement rather than a question (“Are you feeling anxiety…?”) can be uncomfortable. They worry that it could come off as too presumptuous. Interestingly, our experience and research shows that empathy statements actually help the talker feel more heard, and also more confident in the listener’s skills. Just like with reflections, talkers will typically tell you if your suggested feeling or explanation is not quite right. And that’s OK! What matters is that you showed how closely you are listening to their story.
We’ve all been in conversations where the other person questioned whether our feelings were real or deserved. It hurts. Good listeners not only help identify relevant feelings and causes, they validate those feelings as well. “I can see how your mom’s previous blow-ups about this would make you hesitant to say something again. I’d be anxious, too!” Among all the skills we use on 988, validation is often the technique that seems to best help clients feel safe and heard. One important note about validation is that you don’t necessarily need to agree with a feeling or reaction to a situation when using the skill. If you are stuck on what to say because you disagree with them (or a negative feeling is aimed at you), it’s OK to stick with reflections and empathy statements.
As you practice these essential listening skills, you’ll no doubt notice that shifting your usual support style is a challenge. It takes time. You’ll also notice, though, that friends seek you out more when they’ve got something heavy on their minds. You’re on your way to becoming that friend, the one who somehow always knows what to say.
If you or a loved one need space to explore your feelings, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Trained crisis counselors are always available to provide support. Text or call 988 or chat online at 988lifeline.org/chat any time of day or night.