How to become an active listener: 'Don’t try to solve their problems or change their point of view'

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
Illustration photo by Getty Images.
Illustration photo by Getty Images.
  • Clinical psychologist, Allan Sweidan, says that listening to someone can make a difference in their lives.
  • He explains that a lot pf people have mental health issues and they need someone to listen to them.
  • Allan gives tips on how to actively listen and how to talk to make people listen.

You don’t need a degree in psychology to make a difference to someone who is experiencing a difficult time. Sometimes, all you need is the willingness to listen to them.

“Active Listening is one of the most powerful tools we have to address mental illness,” says Allan Sweidan, clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Join Panda App, a free to download app that provides information and support for mental health issues.

He points out that many people experiencing mental health issues feel very isolated. “Listening can be the first step toward creating a connection, which may go a very long way to alleviating feelings of sadness or worry. Listening attentively may even be a turning point for someone who is contemplating suicide to re-evaluate their decision.”

READ MORE | 'I’m coloured, he’s white – this is how we talk about race'

Listening is so important that around the world, a number of initiatives have been implemented to encourage people to take the time and really hear what others are saying. For example, World Listening Day, celebrated on 18 July, was introduced in 2010 to celebrate the art of listening to, and hearing the sounds of the world around us. As part of this, participants are advised to “talk less and listen more.”

A similar theme underpins Talk To Us, a day celebrated in the UK in honour of the Samaritans, a group which works to assist people who are feeling suicidal. The Samaritans established their first listening helpline for people contemplating suicide in 1953.

Sweidan points out that many people think listening is the preserve of counsellors who have been specially trained in this art. It’s certainly true that listening forms a large part of any therapy session: after all, we wouldn’t have the Talking Cure if there wasn’t someone listening.

Listening builds trust and encourages people to share more, which may, in turn, help them to feel as though they have released some of the burdens which are causing them distress. Psychologists call this phenomenon ‘Catharsis,’ one of the most important elements of healing. The Join Panda App offers anonymous text and voice-based chat support sessions that offer users of the app the opportunity to communicate from afar and be heard.

READ MORE | Women are finding new ways to influence male-led faiths

It is, however, equally important that people who are struggling with mental illness feel that they can turn to their friends and family members. Sweidan illustrates that people often feel enormous relief when they are finally able to express how they are feeling.

This is especially true for people who feel suicidal: often, the very act giving voice to their suicidal thoughts can be the first step away from the precipice. More importantly, and from a purely practical point of view, it is a physical action which makes it possible for them to receive the help they need.

This is why support groups have a critical role to play, Sweidan says. “We have seen the importance of such groups in our Forest in the app: people derive enormous comfort from speaking to others who have had similar experiences,” he points out, adding that these groups are able to offer one of the most valuable commodities of all: empathy.

“Ultimately, each of us wants to feel that we are connected in some way – that’s one of the reasons mental illness became a significant challenge during lockdown. And it’s why listening is so important – it’s a solid bridge between people,” Sweidan concludes.

READ MORE | ‘Am I wrong for telling my friend to stop venting to me?’

How to ‘actively listen’…

  • Show the person they have your full attention by looking at them directly and giving eye contact when appropriate. Nod your head occasionally to show you are taking in what they’re telling you.
  • Slow down. Don’t try to rush the person. Use your body language and eye contact to let them know they can have all the time they need.
  • Don’t try to solve their problems or change their point of view. The point of listening is to express empathy and let them know they are not alone.
  • Above all, avoid being judgmental.

…And how to talk to make people listen

  • If it feels daunting to speak to someone face to face, send a text explaining that you’re battling and need help.
  • Choose a place and time where you feel comfortable and relaxed.
  • Accept that this might well be the first step – although you will certainly feel better after unburdening yourself, you may need to have more than one talk.
  • Consider reaching out to a professional. Remember that you can speak to a counsellor on the Panda app. 
We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.