Support Guide: Ask & Listen

When I wrote my support guide, the first point had to be 'Ask and listen'. Originally, I had it as 'Ask and actually listen' because there is a difference between listening and really listening.

This is one of my pet peeves; having conversations with people who don't really listen. Whether they ask a question and interrupt your answer, or look around disinterestedly; it's rude.

These people don't make good listeners, and this can be particularly problematic when someone is trying to open up about difficult and personal topics.

If you're here because you're trying to find a better way to support someone, it's important that you spend time reflecting on this point. Asking, and really listening.

You'd be surprised how many people don't ask how someone is, and then later use this as an excuse as to why they didn't know that someone was struggling. Take note: it is extremely rare for someone going through a difficult time to find the courage to bring it up without being prompted. They need to know this is a safe space, and if you aren't showing your concern or emotional depth, how do they know?

That's why asking is so important. It seems obvious, but I have spent plenty of time with people who don't ask any questions of their company, particularly meaningful ones. They fill the conversation with light conversation that avoids any emotional depth. Someone who is struggling will never feel safe enough to divulge their pain in these circumstances. And another time, I will go into the importance of creating safe emotional spaces - but know, these can take time to create.

So if you're worried about someone; ask. Ask them how they are. And keep asking. Either at the same time, in different ways, or over a period of time. They may not take up your offer the first time, but that doesn't mean you wash your hands of it. Give them time to process whether this is the time that they want to have the conversation. The more you ask, the more likely they will appreciate that you are someone who genuinely cares.
Example ways to ask:
You don't seem yourself lately, is everything okay?
I'm a little worried about you, is there any thing you want to talk about?
How are you going lately, really?
You mentioned that you were struggling, how are you finding things?
You seem stressed/worried/down, are you okay?
How have things been lately?
Last time we spoke, you mentioned that you were struggling, how is that going now?
Tell me a little bit more about [whatever is making them sad and worried].

Use as many variations as possible to keep asking. It shouldn't be forceful, or prying. And you can even preface your questions with I don't want to pry or make you feel uncomfortable, I'm just worried. Or let them know they can trust you and that you will try to understand, even if you don't know what they're going through.

People think they are checking by asking a curt How are you? but this is not enough. Without a doubt, that person will answer with good/fine/okay and so forth. It's up to you to show that you mean, how are you really.

The second part is the listening. Important things to remember:
Do not interrupt (this should be a rule in every conversation).
Do not look around, maintain eye contact (again, general life rule).
If the conversation is broken for any reason, pick it up again by saying, Sorry you were saying or Sorry, before we got interrupted, you were saying? Even better if you can remember what they were saying and prompt them Sorry, you were talking about your time at work, please go on. There is nothing worse than being cut off and then the conversation moving on. It's rude
Do give them time to speak. Silence is okay. Sometimes they need time to find their words and process what they want to say. Articulating emotions is difficult, don't cut them off.
Ask questions. This is the key to being a good listener. In any context, a good listener asks questions. They are continually engaged in the conversation. By responding to their answer, you're showing them you're listening and interested. Firing closed questions at someone is not a conversation. You ask open questions, and let the conversation blossom from there.

Throughout all of this, it's important to be aware of body language. What says supportive? Sitting up straight but relaxed with good eye contact. Do not slouch in your chair or hunch over, be receptive to them. Be open. Do not look around or beyond them. Consider your facial expressions; it's okay to be expressive, humans are all about visual cues and facial expressions convey so much.

This is the gateway to being there for someone. Asking and truly listening. And if you have to ask 10 times before they open up, then you ask 10 times. Then listen. Really listen. It will make all the difference as to whether someone will come to you again. 

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