Mental Health Spotlight: How to really listen

I am often asked what the best approach is to begin a conversation with someone I am concerned about.

By Tim Hoopmann

I am often asked what the best approach is to begin a conversation with someone I am concerned about. Perhaps they are absent from meetings or social or sporting gatherings. I may have noticed when I am with them, they are not present and seem distracted. These could be signs that they are struggling. The fact I am aware of these changes in behaviour means I can then “check in” with them and ask them how they are doing.

Sometimes, all someone needs are to be listened to.

If you notice someone behaving differently or struggling in some way, it’s a good idea to see if there’s anything you can do to help. You might be worried about saying the wrong thing. Be courageous and start by simply asking ‘How are you going?’ or ‘What’s been happening?’ Showing care can help the person relax and feel comfortable sharing. Sometimes, all someone needs are to be listened to. Listening is very powerful and will show the person you care.

Becoming a good active listener takes practice.

Genuine intent and active listening

Active listening means giving your full attention to the person speaking. It means having a genuine intent to hear that person’s story. Put your phone away and focus on what they’re saying. Listening becomes all about the person speaking. The focus is on them and not how their behaviour has impacted you.

How to start

There’s no perfect way to start a conversation – approach them in a way that feels comfortable. Be genuine, open and speak to them as you normally would. You don’t need to offer advice or have all the answers. It’s about listening and not about fixing them.

Show you care by listening respectfully

  • Listen without judgement – don’t interrupt with advice on how to ‘fix’ a situation, and don’t feel as though you need to solve their problems.
  • Make sure you understand – repeat back to the person what they’ve told you and ask them to clear up anything you don’t understand.
  • It’s okay to not know what to say – just be honest with them and let them know that you care.
  • Sit comfortably with silence – there’s no need to fill every ‘awkward’ gap in conversation. Sometimes people need time to open-up and giving them some silence may help them gain the courage to share with you.

What to avoid

  • Don’t rush them – give them the time and space they need to talk with you comfortably.
  • Don’t dismiss them – or tell them to ‘snap out of it’ or ‘stop worrying’ because it’s not that simple.
  • Don’t pretend to be an expert – you don’t need to have all the answers for them.

Instead, let them know you’re grateful to them for being honest with you and remind them that you’re there for them. Letting them know that their conversation is confidential can be very reassuring.

Listening can be a huge help

Being an active listener can make a massive difference to someone who is going through a tough time. It’s okay if the other person doesn’t want to talk – respect their choice but don’t let it throw you off. It is their journey, and they may need time to open-up and share. Let them know you are there to support them whenever they need to talk.


Tim Hoopmann is a speaker, mentor and coach, with a passion for growing small business through using technology to increase productivity and reduce costs. He is also a volunteer speaker for Beyond Blue, working to raise awareness of anxiety and depression, reduce the associated stigma and encourage people to get help.

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