Tips on being a better listener from a former helpline volunteer
The Internet has a wealth of great articles with a wealth of useful advice on supporting your fellow developers, colleagues, and most critically, yourself, as you progress through your software engineering career, or whatever path you find yourself upon. This really motivated me to write my own post on this topic, one of which is close to my heart.
For a bit of background, whilst at university, I became interested in volunteering and mental health. In British, Irish, and other European universities, many students volunteer for a local Nightline - a listening service staffed by fellow students who volunteer their time supporting the wellbeing of others in their respective communities by providing a listening ear and a source of empathy when often most other services are unavailable. As a volunteer with my university’s branch, I’ve since contributed well over 1100 hours to peer support, and an additional 200 in training other volunteers - so I’ve certainly learned a thing or two!
With that in mind, here are 5 tips on being a better listener, and how you can better support others! This is a long article, I apologise, but I promise that you will learn something from it!
Please note: This is not advice or guidance on how to support someone in a crisis. Please consult a mental health first aider at your organisation, or immediate medical assistance in an emergency.
1) Make better use of Active Listening
Active Listening is the act of conscientiously listening to someone, providing feedback, and giving someone space to talk freely without judgement or advice. There are three key techniques that encompass this:
Repeating back something that someone said to you to demonstrate that you are listening to them. This can take the form of literally echoing back what they’ve said:
“I’m having real trouble understanding linear search algorithms.”
“Trouble understanding linear search algorithms?”
Or can be in the form of a summarisation - summarising what they have said to you - providing an opportunity to ask a question and be empathetic.
“Thanks for telling me about what you’re going through with your new colleagues, in particular with the name-calling. Can you tell me anything more about them?”
Again like with the example above, asking open (so questions that cannot be responded with merely yes or no) questions to encourage someone to talk.
“How is it making you feel?” “Have you spoken about this with anyone else?” “What actions have you considered?”
Use affirmative noises, noises like “mhm” and if the conversation is face-to-face, actions such as nodding and maintaining eye contact can help let someone know that you care and that you are listening. Don’t keep checking your phone! If someone needs more time to talk or find their words, remind them that they can take all the time they need. Remind them that you won’t judge them.
2) Don’t immediately look to problem solve
If you’re talking with someone and they ask for your advice, or for guidance on what they should do, it’s a good idea rather than to attempt to solve their problems for them, to give them an environment in which they can come to their own answer independently. You can help guide them to potential outcomes without giving your own opinion.
What do I mean by this in action? Let’s role-play.
I’m having trouble keeping up with my workload and it’s causing me a great deal of stress. Honestly I don’t know what I should do.
You - good answer:
I’m sorry to hear that you’re feeling stressed. Would you like to talk to me more about what’s on your workload?
You - poor answer:
You should probably talk to your supervisor about that; there’s not really much I can do to help you there.
As you can see, the first answer is empathetic and offers an opportunity to talk about the problem more. The second answer breaks interpersonal rapport and will often make the other person not want to talk about what they’re going through, since you’ve already provided a solution. Chances are - they’ve already considered that anyway.
Furthermore, there might be further underlying reasons for them wanting to talk. They have initially mentioned workload, but by probing further into their situation, there may be other underlying causes, perhaps a bereavement, illness, etc. that might be contributing to the difficulty keeping up with their workload.
3) Use their language
Of course I don’t mean a language itself (like French), but rather what words and terminology someone uses, you should mimic naturally when you speak to them.
Believe it or not, we tend to do this subconsciously anyway (code-switching) but making an active effort to live in their world and use the terminology that they use can help you build a rapport with someone and to let them know that you are attentively listening to them. This also helps you avoid making any assumptions, as you’re only using words that they have given you.
For example, if someone wants to talk to about a problem they’re having with their partner, then use that word. Don’t substitute it with boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, husband, whatever, and vice versa. It should go without saying, but this extends to people’s preferred pronouns also.
Exceptions apply. You don’t need to use phrases or words you feel uncomfortable with, or that are derogatory. If in doubt, ask.
4) Avoid using the word ‘why’
The term why can sometimes feel judgemental or confrontational. Consider the two examples:
Why do you feel that way?
With an alternative phrasing:
What makes you feel that way?
It seems simplistic and almost nit-picky, but you will find that many active listening programmes will encourage avoiding the term.
5) Understand the difference between sympathy and empathy
Sometimes we use the terms interchangeably in the English language - but they are different emotions. Empathy is vulnerable and requires a commitment to coming down to someone’s level to experience their emotions and experience as they do. Sympathy, is simply: “that’s too bad.”
The best explanation for this comes in the form of a short animation by Dr Brené Brown. I implore you to give it a watch!
From this article, I hope that you are able to understand a little about Active Listening, how being non-directional and non-judgemental can aid your conversational skills and supporting others, that your choice of vocabulary can seriously matter, and the dramatic difference between empathy and sympathy.
These skills can be lifesaving and will help you in your everyday job, your interpersonal relationships, and even with your own wellbeing.
Remember these golden words: If in doubt, ask!
I would leave to hear from you in the comments below, including if you have any questions, criticisms, or even your own experiences. All are welcome. Again, thank you so much for reading.