Speaking from experience, being a good listener is essential for helping someone who’s emotionally in a bad spot. Instead of instinctively trying to “fix things” the moment I hear them, I just start by listening because it helps when I do this and reflect their words back to them – either literally or in a special way between the speaker and me (the listener). This verifies what they’re saying.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children affirms this, in four steps: (1) listen thoughtfully to the meaning of the speaker’s words; (2) consider the content of the message, both stated and implied; (3) consider the feelings associated with the message, attending to verbal and nonverbal cues; (4) make every effort to reflect that message.
Both children and adults can benefit from this.
I know this because a few years ago, I was at another school trying to finish my degree while also caretaking at home. This situation left me with very few days off and I would’ve crashed and burned, but thankfully, some good friends of mine took the time to be active listeners for me. Their help led me on the path to healing and gave me the inspiration to do for others what my friends did for me.
The first rule of active listening is avoiding the “why” questions. That leads to close-ended questions which tend to sound like the speaker is being called out. The danger here is letting personal views or judgments affect the speaker’s answer. Re-framing these into “what” questions leads toward open-ended discussions that encourage multiple reasons in a response and understand them better.
A bad situation isn’t simply a problem to be solved. It’s knowing that at least someone cares. Allowing the speaker to feel and process their feelings before working on a solution are the first steps to take toward helping a friend, family or otherwise, in a bad spot.
My first instinct is always to be passive. I care about what they’re saying, so I maintain eye contact and wait for their turn. This comes on a case-by-case basis, contributing enough where the speaker knows I’m still interested while not doing so much that their thoughts are drowned out, finding the happy medium between these two approaches.
This is about making someone feel important. They have a voice that needs to be heard. This is their story. A speaker cares enough to share a difficult part of their life.
If it’s more than this, though, find a certified therapist or call the Samaritans Crisis line if that’s out of reach, money or otherwise. Their number is a 24/7 hotline and it’s 877-870-4673.
Remember: this editorial isn’t a substitute for help from a certified professional. It’s just a healthy perspective for when you’re in a bad spot.