Since the ripe old age of 12, I have always been the person my friends come to with problems. When a significant other is mistreating them, when their mother just cannot understand or their long trusted friend has become distant, people come running to me with their deepest darkest secrets, and a burning desire to be heard.
This is probably why it felt so seamless for me to branch into the world of the psychology profession. I had already been in practice for 10 plus years by the time I began my graduate program.
Being that I am this unloading dock for my friends, family and honestly sometimes just acquaintances, I have developed and honed in some skills in being a good support system and listener.
Some of these are things that I picked up on my own in my 24 years of life, and others came after I received some education and training. One thing I have noticed is that while I love being the person to hear my loved ones out, many of them do not have the ability to return the much needed favor.
I have also seen this be a bone of contention between romantic partners, friendships and familial relationships outside of my own life and in the lives of friends, family and clients. Clearly this lack of listening skills problem prevalent in today's world.
This has led me to come up with a list of a few tips on how to be a better listener and all around support system to your loved ones because not everyone has this innate ability, has gone to extensive years of schooling or has the opportunity to afford therapy to learn these communicative skills. While this is brief and definitely leaves room for interpretation or style, it's a good place to start.
Ready to become the best friend/boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse/person ever? Here we go:
1. Eliminate all distractions when listening to someone.
Now, while this might seem like a no-brainer, in our world of constant messages/emails/snapchats/Instagram comments/etc., it is rare that we have an uninterrupted conversation.
I've heard clients say that having their phone or some other distracting object can be comforting during an intimate or heated conversation, but they really just inhibit the learning and growing. You are going to miss what the other person is saying or not fully hear them. Put down the phone, TV remote, laptop, iPad, whatever and just focus on the living breathing person in front of you.
2. Maintain eye contact.
Again, I feel like this is so simple, but I am not joking. When all else fails, if you are really focusing on the person and looking at them they will feel as though they are being heard. Focusing on them helps you to make everything else just background noise, while your loved one takes center stage. This will help them feel like you're ingesting their words and will help you to actually process them at the same time.
3. Don't make it about you.
Here is a biggie: When someone is sharing something intimate about themselves with you, do not -- I repeat DO NOT -- make it about you. I am guilty of this too, but when you turn the conversation into your story, it takes away the confidence and the value of what the other person is saying. While it may be helpful to share how you can relate to the feelings/thoughts/words being displayed to you, leave it at that.
If someone is telling you how they cannot get over their parents' recent divorce, you can share that you can relate to them because you felt similarly when you experienced the same thing. But then STFU. Don't keep talking about how you still cannot forgive them for what they put you through; you're not here to talk, you're hear to listen.
They may find comfort in knowing that you have a shared experience and feel more able to open up to you, but only continue to talk about your experience if you are asked. I can tell you that I have had clients who have experienced and shared similar experiences to my own, and while you might want to interject with your own baggage with only good intentions, keep it limited and keep the focus on the other person.
4. Ask them questions.
It is so important to process emotions. By processing, I mean thinking, feeling and reflecting on the event that has transpired. Not enough people realize this and how crucial it is for our mental health, but nonetheless, when someone is sharing this incredibly personal process with you, you need to become a part of the process and the easiest way is to ask them questions.
Don't turn into Dan Rather and go all "60-Minutes" on them, but when there is a lull or a pause in their speech, take that as an opportunity to ask them something. People make fun of therapists and that all we do is ask, "and how does that make you feel?" And I'm sure this has been overused in many situations but guess what? This is often the best thing you can ask.
It's easy on you, it's easy on them to be open-ended in their response and you don't infer any of your own thoughts or feelings when asking it. Hopefully you are actually paying attention and can ask some more personal questions fitting to the scenario, but I promise that by using this seven-worded phrase, you will get far and make the other person feel like you legitimately care about what they're sharing.
5. Stop judging them.
This is hard. We all judge, whether you want to admit it or not, you know you do it too. We all have these conceived notions of people based on what they say, what they wear, how they act--but guess what? You're probably wrong about 90 percent of it. So instead of thinking how weak and spineless your friend must really be to allow her boyfriend to talk to her like that, concentrate on how she must be feeling not only having experienced this, but also exposing herself to you. Talking about ourselves is deeply vulnerable and you should never take for granted the honor of someone sharing their truest self with you.
6. If they don't come to you, go to them.
By this I mean, if you know that your friend just went through a devastating breakup, lost their beloved grandmother or have been experiencing some type of hardship, stop ignoring it and just ask them.
I can speak from my own experience here and share that when you are going through something difficult, it can be hard to bring it up and hard to ask for support. I have felt guilty, uncomfortable and just plain out of place because I feel bad bringing up an uncomfortable topic. I know that unlike me, most people are not comfortable with the uncomfortable.
And don't take the easy road here and think or say that you didn't know they were having a hard time because you always know. And don't use the other cop-out that you don't want to bring them down by bringing it up when they "seem" to be happy or having a good time.
Here's what you can say: "Listen, we don't have to talk about it and you can tell me to leave this alone, but I want to check in and see how you're doing about BLANK." Done. Simple as that.
You just opened the door they thought was locked, and now they can choose how much to share or not share anything at all. The fact that you asked will mean more than you coming up with the perfect thing to say in response to their woes.
7. Remember how much you love them.
If you don't remember a single other thing from this article, remember this: The person talking to you clearly loves and trusts you, so remember the love that you have for them in return and use that as your guide.
At the end of the day, all we want is to love and to feel that love in return from the people we dish it out to. So when your SO or friend starts confiding in you and you feel overwhelmed by their words or tired after your 12-plus hour day, remember that you care for this person and have chosen to have them in your life, so treat them like the prize that they clearly are and love them with your listening presence.