How to listen

What introverts can teach us about listening

How many times have you heard that talking about something can help you to feel better?

Hundreds? Thousands of times? … And yet many of us still won’t talk to ease our burdens, our worries, our pain or even our distress.

We’ve been hearing it for ages and we all know it’s true. But still, having that conversation around our difficult emotions, stress or fears – let alone our mental health – can be a mahousive step to take.

Let me tell you what makes it easier, what makes it work. When the person you’re opening up to listens well. When they’re empathetic. When they don’t judge you. When they allow you to say what you need to. When they are alongside you and they don’t interrupt you.

That’s when it feels good, when you feel the weight lifted off, when it was worth the risk you felt of opening yourself up to criticism, judgement or being laughed at. When someone gives you empathy, you feel a connection.

A conversation is a two-way street. Someone has to talk and someone else has to listen. And listening well, to allow that other person to talk openly about whatever’s bothering them, is a skill.

It takes practice but I can show you how. It’s an integral part of the Mental Health First Aid training – even how to listen well and deliver empathy on Zoom. I bet you thought it couldn’t be done!

Some people are naturally good listeners, but it’s something you can learn. Simple things work. Introverts are often great role models when it comes to listening well. Pay attention to an introvert in your life, whether at work or personal life. Notice what they do, notice what they don’t do.

Why do introverts make such great listeners?

Some of the natural introvert personality traits, mean that they tend to be good listeners. For example, introverts think before they speak, they are reflective and observant, and they process information internally.

All of these work together and mean that they are able to hold a safe space for people to talk. To allow others to talk at their own pace and to allow silences. It means they don’t interrupt.

We all sit somewhere on the scale of introversion/extroversion and can have traits from each.

Introverts think before they speak.

Introverts don’t tend to leap in and finish the other person’s sentences.

After someone has spoken, they will pause to understand what has been said and choose how to respond. The power of the pause is a real game-changer in so many situations, not just listening. I’ve written more about that in this blog.

But when it comes to listening well and delivering empathy, we have two ears and one mouth. We should try to use them in that proportion.

Introverts are also comfortable in silences.

Don’t rush to fill the silences in conversation.

Those silences in a conversation where someone is opening up to you are not empty – they’re dynamic. There is so much happening right there – let it happen. Don’t rush to fill those silences…

Those silences provide a chance for the other person to process what they’ve just said. It could be something they’ve never admitted to anyone – maybe not even themselves.

They might be thinking about what they want to say next, trying to find the right words. If you rush to fill that silence, they might never find those words to express their feelings.

There’s a quiet power in giving people the time and space to do that.

Introverts take a slower pace.

With their introspective and reflective nature, introverts are more likely to go slow. That’s why they don’t leap in or cut off the other person speaking. They might even speak slower.

I call it the ‘late-night DJ voice’. Slow and low. Speaking in this way inspires calm. It’s infectious, like smiling. This is soothing and relaxing, this voice breeds calmness, relaxation and confidence. Try to find yours – I dare you.

If you respond to someone in this way, especially if they’re upset, you’ll almost certainly find that it soothes them. And it works a lot better than just telling someone to calm down, especially in a loud voice!

Find a slower pace – be more tortoise!

You don’t need to find the solution…just listen

Often when we have conversations with people, especially if they’re telling us about a problem, our instinct is to try and fix it.

We’re so solution-orientated, particularly men and managers, that we’re always trying to help by solving the problem.

There’s nothing wrong with that. But I’ve found that it’s more helpful to listen carefully without judgement to what that person is telling you. This helps them open the tap on their stress container and pour some of it out to gain capacity again. This may just give them enough clarity to pick a way forward, an option which suits them, rather than having advice thrust upon them, even if it may be with the best intentions.

Not judging them and giving them space and time to speak creates safety and trust. This encourages people to open up even more.

Being an extrovert isn’t a barrier to being a good listener. It might just take a little more effort, but we can all learn from the introverts.

Why not try it next time you’re talking to someone or trying to encourage them to open up?

If you are unsure what to say remember – ‘less is more’. Allow the silence. Find your late-night DJ voice.

And let me know how it goes…

You can find out more about this topic by listening to a podcast I did recently with the Flourishing Introvert, Joanna Rawbone

Listening non-judgementally and holding space for conversations around well-being and mental health is a key part of the Mental Health First Aid training – find out more about that here.