How to be a Better Listener

We all go through stuff. One thing that’s certain in life is that we’ll face some challenges that may be difficult to handle or get through. Similarly, we tend to lean on those closest to us for support and to feel less alone. As social creatures, people need support through ups and downs. When I work with clients, I ask about their social support network to address any risk of isolation or withdrawal, coping skills, and self care. On occasion, I hear complaints that friends, partners or family members have good intentions but miss the mark on offering helpful support.

Here are some Do’s/Don’ts on how to be a better listener, be more supportive and connect better with those you care about.

  1. DO: Identify the request. When someone shares a complaint, concern or problem, consider what they may need from you. Do they just want to vent? Are they asking for problem solving assistance? Do they want a solution but aren’t quite ready to decide how to solve the problem? If you can’t tell, ask them directly. You can simply say, “I can tell this is bothering you. How can I help?”. Let them answer with what they need from you. If your job is to just listen, then don’t offer any solutions.
  2. DO: Listen with expression, body language and words. Don’t interrupt. Make eye contact, try to understand what they are thinking and feeling. It’s not about your opinion of what they’re going through, it’s about their experience. Set aside your opinion unless the person specifically asks for it (ex: if you hear, “what would you do?”, “how do I fix this?”, etc). Once the person has shared their concern, your first response should reflect what you heard. This validates their thoughts and feelings and lets them know you understand and heard them. For example, “It seems like you’re worried about making a mistake”.
  3. DON’T: Dismiss their feelings. This is the number one complaint I hear about support gone wrong. Never say things like, “don’t worry about it”, “it’ll all work out”, “I’m sure it’ll be fine”, “things happen for a reason,” “if it’s meant to be, it will be”, etc. This can be hurtful and confusing. The person will begin to doubt their thoughts, feelings and experiences and stop trusting themselves. They may feel guilt or shame. Instead, just try to understand their problem that’s important to It doesn’t have to be a big deal to you, but it is to your loved one and that matters!
  4. DON’T: Start talking about a similar problem you have. Sure, you may have gone through a similar situation. That doesn’t mean it’s time to talk about it. It may have taken a bit of courage for someone to share something vulnerable, so be kind and just listen. The exception to this tip is if the person has asked to hear about your problem and what you did. If that request is absent, don’t assume they want it.
  5. DO: Offer only what you’re able to. If the concern is too overwhelming for you, triggers your own pain, or puts you in the middle of an uncomfortable conflict, set a boundary. If you’re able to listen without bias, just continue to validate their concern and ask what they need. If it’s too much to handle or you think the person may be at risk (are in an abusive relationship, or could hurt themselves or someone else), suggest they seek professional help. Helping them find a doctor or therapist may be the best way to help.

Typically more discussion is sparked once I start talking about these techniques with clients. If there’s interest in practicing better listening skills, I work with clients to rehearse and apply communication strategies specific to their concerns.

The strategies I recommend most for better communication are on assertive styles. If you’d like to learn more, contact me, or find a therapist in your area who utilizes these techniques.

Can’t get motivated? Try going without.

Do you find yourself interested in doing something productive then when it comes time to actually start, your motivation has vanished?

You may know someone who seems to have endless motivation and never procrastinates. Perhaps that person is very organized, is involved in a number of hobbies or work tasks, or is enthusiastically conquering every workout without a single complaint. You wonder why it seems easy for others but such a challenge for you.

Motivation by definition is a reason one has for acting or behaving in a particular way; or a willingness or desire to do something. Feeling motivated can inspire people to set, act on and achieve goals. Generally, people seem to want to feel motivated. However, the feeling isn’t constant and tends to occur in waves. Sometimes you may feel excited and interested in working towards your goal. You feel productive, energized and the work you’re doing may seem fun or even effortless. You’re proud of the work you’re doing and you feel accomplished. Other times, you have less energy, lose interest and your productivity drops, even if the goal is still very important to you. You may still want the outcome you planned, but putting in the time just seems so challenging. This idea of motivation occurring in waves comes from a theory – the “motivational wave” which is explained here.

It’s normal to have peaks and drops of motivation and we can’t expect to experience motivation constantly. Like many thoughts or feelings, motivation, moods and attitudes tend to be fleeting and temporarily come and go. Of course, acting on a goal can be much more pleasant when we feel motivated, but we don’t need to depend on motivation to carry us through the process of working towards or achieving a goal.

When those peaks of motivation occur, take advantage of them if you can. When you can’t seem to muster up any interest, try going through the steps you set out to do anyway, rather than procrastinating. You may not feel an overwhelming sense of inspiration, but you still put in some time on your plan and may end up glad you did.

When motivation is absent, it’s not a signal to make a different choice. It’s likely that there will be incidents when you have time planned out to work towards your goal and you’re feeling everything but motivation; procrastination, fatigue, distraction and boredom set in. When that happens you can mindfully accept the feeling, though uncomfortable, and get to work anyway. Consider directing your inner dialogue with some mindful guidance such as: “I can feel both unmotivated and go to bootcamp today”, or “I’m aware that my tiredness is making me unmotivated, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still complete this task”, or simply, “I recognize that I don’t feel a wave of motivation right now which will make this activity a bit more challenging in the moment”.

So when the time comes to set a goal and start working on it, consider making a list of why it’s important to you and write down small milestones to keep track of as you go. Reviewing your list can remind you of what motivated you in the first place and show you the accomplishments you’ve already made. Even if reviewing your list doesn’t spark a surge of inspiration, keep in mind you can still spend some time on it anyway.

The strategies I use in working with clients on motivation and acceptance blends Mindfulness techniques with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. If you’d like to learn more, contact me, or find a therapist in your area who utilizes these techniques.