Three weeks ago, I wrote a post that had some advice for helping those who have anxiety and possibly many other mental health issues. It was THIS ONE! In the comments, I began have some brief chats about the concept of listening and hearing. Not in those specific terms and I do think I got them mixed up. The above graphic helps define the two and it appears I swapped them in my head. For that, I apologize.
As I’ve said, it’s very important to talk to people with anxiety, but you don’t want to force the conversation. You also want to avoid throwing in your own ideas and trying to guide their own thought processes. Asking questions can work if the mood is right and you can make suggestions in a way that they aren’t orders. Again, this is only if the person is clearly open to a conversation instead of simply being listened to. So, you have to work more with your ears than your mouth if you want to help.
That’s what a lot of things boil down to here. A feeling of isolation because nobody understands you can be a part of nearly every mental illness. There’s a lot of internal analysis that runs in circle or goes wild, which makes one wonder if anyone else has this problem. Even if you know that you have anxiety, you may start to feel like you have a different ‘flavor’ than other people. It can be an odd combination of feeling special and broken at the same time. How could anyone understand when you aren’t a textbook example? That’s a dangerous thought even when you are getting help.
So, where does listening and hearing come in? A person will feel like they’ve been understood if they know you’re listening. This can be born from hearing, but there’s a danger with staying in that involuntary stage. Yes, you will get the words as they go into your ears, but they could simply pass through. You can forget what is being said, react the wrong way, or jump to an improper conclusion. There’s also some clear body language that one does when only hearing a person talk. For example, the eyes might go to the side a bit or they do the ‘uh-huh’ stuff. I will admit that I do this myself. Part of it is a fear of eye-contact that I’ve had since I was a teenager. So, I could be wrong on this.
Now, what comes from listening? Well, it means you’ve paid attention to the words and situation that is being described. A deeper understanding comes through here. It’s no longer ‘this person has anxiety’, but ‘this person has anxiety due to this and it makes them feel exactly this way’. You can find more comfortable openings to ask questions instead of barging in. Again, if the situation allows for it. A listener might find that they can’t do anything in the moment, but afterwards they can do some research and come to a deeper understanding for the next interaction. A lot of ways to help people with anxiety is simply to understand what they are going through and why. This act alone could make them feel like they aren’t as alone as they believed.
Unfortunately, listening isn’t a natural skill for most people. That would be hearing. To be able to listen to a person, you need to ‘practice’ and train. It’s more about honing your ability to concentrate and curtailing any urges to turn the conversation either to yourself or take them over completely. There’s a lot of ‘best intention’ pitfalls here, which you won’t always recognize until you stumble. This brings in an important fact:
Never be afraid to apologize for making a mistake.
Maybe you pushed too hard or stopped paying attention. If it upset the person then you need to apologize and learn from that mistake. When a suffering friend comes to you, it means you’re on a special list of confidants. For many, this could be 2-3 since it’s such a sensitive subject. By not listening or apologizing, you can inadvertently reduce the person’s trusted circle. It can roll even further out of control by them wondering if the others are the same and they’re simply being humored. Yeah, it’s a lot of weight on your shoulders, but even if you can’t help, you should at least work to not make things worse. This is why evolving from hearing to listening helps.
- Saying ‘I hear you’ is a terrible phrase. It rarely comes off as anything other than condescending or a lie. Try not to use it even if you mean it.
- Pay attention to your own body language at times. If a conversation is going on for a while, your attention might wander a bit. It’s natural, so you might not be able to stop it. Just don’t check your watch too often.
- One time I do think it can work to interrupt a friend is if you notice that an attack is coming on due to the conversation. You can make sure by asking, but a suggestion to go someone more comfortable or take a break until they are ready to talk again can be very helpful. It should be done in a way that doesn’t kill the conversation and makes it clear that you’re worried about them in the moment. If they want to keep going then let them.
- Hearing might seem the easiest path at times. You could fear that listening might create too deep of an analysis and you end up forgetting the individual. This is a total legitimate worry. Yet, staying on the surface means you don’t get the understanding of the source. The trick is to find a balance. I do think listening is more important, but there could be situations when hearing is better because letting an analysis statement slip can make things worse.