How To Be A Good Listener & Be Emotionally Supportive

Everyone needs a good listener who can offer emotional support now and then, but few people really know how to do it. Here are some tips to help you out should you ever find yourself in the position of listening to someone's problems.

Don't be judgmental. It's a classic scenario: Somebody asks someone else what's wrong. The person being asked shrugs and says that it's nothing. The first person says "no, you can tell me about it." So the second opens up and talks about what's the matter... and then the person who asked in the first place gives a judgmental response. There are many forms judgmental responses can take, including:

This is a huge reason people often don't want to talk about what's troubling them. They know that people who insist that they can "talk to them about anything" are liable to pass judgment like this as soon as they speak. If you tell people that they can speak to you, then pull this nonsense on them, don't be surprised if they never open up to you again. You've just proven that you can't be trusted to genuinely listen.

Slow down and try to put yourself into their shoes. Imagine yourself in the other person's position, dealing with all of the problems and frustrations this person has to deal with. Ask yourself what sort of emotions this person would have to be feeling to be this upset or to act like this, and remember how those emotions feel and what sort of situations it took to cause them in you. This will not give you a perfect understanding of what this person is feeling or going through, but it'll generally put you on the right track.

Don't try to compare suffering. Here's another scenario: Somebody asks someone else what's wrong and gets told. Then the person who asked pops off with something to the effect of:

Again, don't be surprised if people don't open up to you after this, because once again you've proven that you can't actually listen. All you've succeeded in doing is trivializing their problems and/or making the conversation about you.

Don't try to get the person to "look on the bright side." You might think that you're helping, but you're not. Listening requires that you hear the person out fully and completely. Furthermore, telling people to "look on the bright side" can sound like you think their problems are trivial.

Don't tell this person to "cheer up, "don't be upset," or anything similar. You can't command people to stop feeling things, so don't even try. You aren't making things better by telling people to do this; you're being an insensitive asshole. The message you send when you do this is "I don't care what you're feeling or why you're feeling that way, so start pretending to be happy so I can forget that you're hurting and worry about myself instead."

Don't launch into a rant/vent of your own. This isn't the time. You're here to listen to the other person, not complain about whatever bothers you, even if it does relate to this person's own particular grief. Save your own rant/vent for later.

Accept that listening sometimes means hearing some things you don't want to hear. The person you're listening to might be somewhat irrational, or might have complaints that center around you and your behavior. This person might have issues with something that you really like. It can be easy to try to argue against what this person is saying, but now is probably not the time.

Now is NOT the time to play Devil's Advocate. There's a time and a place for this, but when people are venting their problems and frustrations to you is not it. It's a very insensitive thing to do, so just don't.

Don't jump to tell them how to fix the problem. This comes off as condescending and insensitive, so just don't. There's a time to give people life advice, and it's not when they're in the middle of venting their problems to you. First you listen and offer support, and when they're done venting, then you find out if they're looking for advice.

If they've been dealing with a chronic/ongoing problem for awhile now, assume they've tried the obvious already. Don't give people like this basic/101 advice off the cuff. Odds are, they probably know about it and have tried it already - and it either didn't work, or it did work to some extent but it still can't fix everything. Furthermore, they've probably encountered a million people who have told them to do the things they're already doing or have already ruled out and are about ready to sock the next person who suggests it. If you're ever unsure, you can always ask "so what are you doing to handle this already?"

Accept that it can mean finding out about problems that you can't fix right now, and maybe not ever. It's a bitter pill to swallow, but it's a sad truth. Someone might be stuck in a situation where there's no real escape at the moment, or might not have access to resources that could possibly help this person fix a problem. This person's problems might not even be fixable. And it can be very hard to listen to problems like these, because our natural impulse is to try to help in some way. But if you're going to be a good listener, you're going to have to deal with the fact that you're going to hear about some distressing things you can't actually do anything about. But just because you can't do anything about them doesn't mean you're doing nothing of value - just listening can be immensely valuable.

You can never go wrong by asking "is there anything I can do?" Sometimes, what the other person needs the most is a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, or just the company. An anxious person might just need someone to have a nice conversation with.

Never, ever lie. Don't say untrue things like "I know everything is going to work out!", "I know you'll get it in the end!", or "I'll always be here for you when you need me." You don't know these things for certain, and odds are this person knows you don't and is only going to be mad at you for lying. Instead, you might say things like "I know things are really bad right now, but that doesn't mean they'll always be this way," "even if this doesn't work out, it doesn't mean it's the end of the road," and "I'll do my best to be here for you."

You might also like:

Apologizing - How & Why To Do It
The Voice of Reason vs. the Control Freak - The Difference
How To Exercise & Strengthen Your Empathy
Ways To Deal With Negative Emotions
How To Be Empathetic (Offsite)
Real Social Skills: Listening To Someone Facing A Bad Situation (Offsite)

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