Learn to help people relieve pressure and anxiety—Ten Tips for Effective Listening
by Nancy Berns
In a world upended, hurting, and fearful, the pressure is mounting. As anxiety and tension escalate, we all need to become better listeners. The ability to listen to someone helps that person release the pressure that builds up inside.
We can think about stress and anxiety as pressure that needs to escape. In various types of equipment, a pressure relief valve is used to release the pressure that builds up over time. If the pressure is not reduced, it can lead to fires, explosions, or other forms of complete breakdown. The same is true for humans. When tension, conflict, or pressure builds too much, it may come out in anger and violence towards not only others but also in self-harm and depression.
We need a pressure relief valve.
We need to learn how to act as a pressure relief valve for others, including family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and strangers. We need to reduce our own pressure, but also learn how to help others release anxiety and fear in safe ways.
One of the most effective ways you can help others relieve pressure is to listen. Sounds simple? It actually can be quite difficult to listen effectively.
Here are ten tips for learning how to be a better listener.
1. WHY you listen is as important as how you listen.
Prepare your motivation for listening: WHY are you listening? If you are listening only to find a way to win a debate, downplay a problem, or just waiting for your turn to speak, then you are not effectively listening. You are only waiting to talk. Make the goal of understanding another person your motivation for why you listen. Be a witness to their pain and frustration, which will help relieve pressure. Listen to allow them to vent.
2. Don’t try to “fix” their pain.
When listening, your job is not to fix their pain. Grieving, expressing pain, sharing fears are all an important process. We do not want to cut them off before they offer benefits. Too often, efforts to fix pain only make people feel like their pain is dismissed. You want to be an audience and a sounding board. This takes the burden of “finding the right words” off of you. Take a deep breath and know that your responsibility is trying to give them attention, compassion, and empathy. Let the person unload emotions and words even if they make no sense to you at the time. When listening you are seeking to understand, not seeking to make the person understand you or to change.
3. Do not be afraid of tears.
Tears are not a bad thing. I know tears make many people uncomfortable. But they are cleansing for the soul. They help people release pain. That release opens up more space for love and joy. Let people cry. They will not melt. Let yourself cry. When you get to the other side of the tears, you will typically find some peace and strength even if still sadness. On the other hand, it is okay if people are not crying. We do not respond to grief and fear in the same way. Give each other room to feel and respond differently.
4. Prepare to set aside your emotions and responses while listening.
Whether you disagree or agree with what the person is saying, you will have to fight the desire to jump in, “correct,” debate, judge, and share your own view. Even if you agree, sometimes we want to let our own experiences take over the focus. If your goal is to listen, then you need to acknowledge those other emotions in your head and heart when they arise, set them aside for now, and keep listening. There is a time and place for you to share your opinions and emotions (and relieve your own pressure), but you can’t talk and listen at the same time. If you are not emotionally strong enough at that moment or don’t feel safe enough to listen to someone, it is in everyone’s best interest to step away from the situation.
5. Resist taking over as the talker.
Many people get excited when another person shares a concern, anger, or even joy. Rather than listening, they become the talker: sharing stories and releasing their own pressure. Be aware that you have stopped being the listener when you do that. Even if you agree with the person, it does not change their need for someone to listen to them. If you are wanting to give some minimal feedback and encouragement, that can be helpful. But then check back in as a listener and let them talk more if they want.
6. Venting: Brace for this first layer.
There are two main layers that you want to try and get through when listening: venting and searching. The first layer is all the stuff bottled up close to the surface: things they’ve been waiting to say. It often comes out quickly with stronger emotion. Do as little talking as possible. Let the person vent. Be encouraging through short feedback (e.g., “ Go on.” “I’m listening.” I’d like to hear more.” “That must be scary.”) Don’t be afraid of pauses. The person may need to collect thoughts, gather courage to go on, and take deep breaths. The pauses allow for this process. Do not take it personally even if part of the venting is directed towards you. There will be time later to sort out how you may or may not be part of the issue. You need to get to the next layer first.
7. Searching: Dig deep for patience and empathy to go further in the second layer.
The second layer goes deeper: searching. After a layer of venting, the person talking can go deeper to better understand and articulate underlying fears, anxiety and loss. The person will need to have built some trust in you first before the searching layer happens, which can come when they see there was room to vent. Revisit the WHY in your listening if your instinct is to debate at this point. Ask gentle questions fueled NOT by a motivation to “fix” the pain or dismiss the concerns, but rather listen to understand more why the person feels that way. Listen to help the person release their pressure. Each situation is different, but here are some examples of questions: “Can you tell me more about the pain?” “What would you want people to know?” “What are you missing out on that makes you sad?” “What scares you?” Neither of you can reach this searching layer without allowing the venting to happen first.
8. Reflect back what you hear without sarcasm, dismissal, pity, or judgment.
To see if you are understanding, paraphrase or reflect back what you’ve heard. It is important to do so without adding a tone of sarcasm, dismissive attitudes, pity, or judgment. You are doing a “check” to see if what you are hearing is the same thing that the person is trying to communicate. We interpret words and examples differently. This phase of your listening helps to cut down on damaging assumptions and keeps us from jumping to conclusions. It also helps to separate what was said in the heat of venting versus what a person may still feel or think after some pressure has been relieved. It can help in that transition between venting and searching.
9. Give undivided attention.
Keep your eyes away from the phone or other distractions. Keep your focus on the person talking. When your mind and eyes wander, the person picks up those clues that you are ready to be done listening. Having said that, it can be helpful to be doing a shared activity (e..g, puzzles, coloring, washing dishes, driving in a car, walking) while having an intentional conversation. This can be especially useful for children and teenagers who may be more open when eye contact is not direct. You will still need to focus your efforts on listening as your goal. People can pick up on distracting behavior. Going back to the WHY you are listening helps here too. Effective listening is usually done best in person. However, during our time of physical distancing, we need to learn to listen effectively over the phone or through virtual apps when we can not see someone in person. We can help people release pressure even in short exchanges and even through technology.
10. Protect yourself and find a good listener for you too.
There are times when you need to step away from a situation to protect yourself emotionally. You still have the right to refuse to go deeper in a conversation with someone who causes you anxiety or poses a threat in other ways. Also, learning to be a good listener does not mean you give up the right to defend yourself and others. It is normal to have the capacity to be a good listener for some people, while other relationships pose more difficulties. Building trust and learning to listen is a life-long process. You might also realize that the person you are listening to needs more help than you can give. Reach out to others for more help when needed. Find someone who is a good listener for you too.
There is a lot to take in with these ten tips for effective listening. Make an effort to do what you can. Finally, you need to know that the person for whom you are a listener may not be a good listener for you. That’s okay. You may need to find someone different to help you relieve pressure. But often, because you take time to listen and invest in people, they are then more ready to listen to you.
During a time when we are asked to stay home except for essential business, we need to become better listeners for each other. Our support network will look different. We also will be working to reach out and listen more over the phone and through social media.
We may also have a rare opportunity during this time of anxiety and stay-at-home orders to develop better listening skills which in turn can help people relieve pressure and deepen relationships. There is beauty in finding a great listener. There is beauty in being a great listener. Take the time to listen.