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As the global pandemic continues, many of us are struggling with unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety, loneliness and grief. It can be difficult to know the right thing to say or how to offer effective support – there is truly no script for this. There are, however, proven ways to listen so that others feel heard. It requires being present in the moment and prioritizing how the other person is feeling. In these complicated times, being an intentional, compassionate listener can be the most helpful way to support someone who is struggling.
Let the person tell his or her story. Listen carefully and focus on the words spoken. Refrain from interrupting.
Avoid problem solving or giving advice. Remember the person is sharing with you as a way of establishing a connection. They are not necessarily expecting a solution or information that they could easily obtain with an Internet search.
Respect the uniqueness of the other person’s story. Try to avoid over-identifying (“the same thing happened to me”), over-simplifying (“oh, you were just dealing with that”) or diminishing the significance of what you are hearing.
Use attentive listening skills. When you do respond, choose your words carefully. Use the same vocabulary and repeat parts of the story you have just heard to show that you are fully present and listening in the moment.
Acknowledge the sharing as an act of trust. Express your gratitude for the person having made him or herself vulnerable enough to share their pain, and encourage them to keep sharing with others.
A note about technology: intentional listening is even more challenging when we are not able to be physically present with one another. Feelings of connection can deteriorate when communication is confined to the digital realm – video chat, text messages, email, etc. When social distancing requires you to use these mediums, remember that your level of distractibility sends a strong message. If you anticipate the other person wants to open up during a video chat, try to concentrate on remaining still and maintain eye contact by looking directly at the webcam. If your conversation is via phone, find a quiet place to talk without distractions or outside noise.
Stephen Carroll, Ph.D., LCPC, is the coordinator of the Halfway House program at Saint Luke Institute.
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