You may have been in the situation where you knew that another person was in great distress but you didn’t know what to say or do. There is one answer that is always correct. Listen. Listen, listen, listen.
Listening is the greatest gift you can give someone–especially someone who is having a difficult time. Listen, listen, listen. Avoid interrupting with advice, stories of your own, your interpretation, corrections — no interrupting at all. Just listen.
When you begin, you can tell the other person how much time you have to listen. It could be 5 minutes, 10 minutes, an hour, an afternoon or all night. Whatever you think you can do. Be honest about this. If all the time you have before you have to pick your child up at school or go to work, let them know. If you know that you can only listen for a short time to take care of yourself, let them know that.
Tell the other person they can say anything they want to, and it is totally confidential. If there are some things the person might say that you could not keep confidential, let them know first. For instance, you could say if you threaten to hurt yourself or someone else, I would have to get help — otherwise, whatever you say would be confidential. If there are things you would rather the person didn’t do, tell them in advance. You could say, “I don’t want you to criticize, judge, bully or tease me, give me advice or tell me traumatic stories.” Otherwise, I am here to listen, listen, listen.
I have done this for people in distress. What I notice is that the longer they talk without interruption, the more sense it makes, and that through this process they figure out a next step or steps — things they have to or want to do. And in this process, they often become more and more calm, and more and more able to think clearly.
My mother had been in a state hospital for eight years when a volunteer encouraged her to talk in this way. At first she kept apologizing for talking so much but this volunteer continued to encourage her and support here. She talked and talked and talked, not all at once but in many different sessions. Over time the hospital personnel began to notice she was not so sad and sullen all the time, but that she was interacting with others more, smiling and even laughing. She even set up a support groups so that others could talk. She was discharged from the hospital at the age of 45.
She came home and reintegrated herself back into our family and the community. She got a job as a nutritionist at an inner-city school. She retired when she was 65. After that she was active as a volunteer and a busy, busy grandmother to many, many grandchildren. She was much loved and well-respected. She lived until she was 82. And she got all this life because someone took the time to listen.
Looking for additional tips? Check out WRAP for Life
For more on my mother’s story go to the Info Center articles Remembering Kate – A Story of Hope and Could it Have Been Different?
If you have stories of how listening or being heard has been helpful to you, please let me know on or send me an email at WRAPandPeer@WRAPandRecoveryBooks.com.
Mary Ellen Copeland, PhD, developed Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) with a group of people with lived experience who were attending a mental health recovery workshop in 1997. She is the original author of the WRAP Red Book, as well as dozens of other WRAP books and materials. She has dedicated the last 30 years of her life to learning from people who have mental health issues; discovering the simple, safe, non-invasive ways they get well, stay well, and move forward in their lives; and then sharing what she has learned with others through keynote addresses, trainings, and the development of books, curriculums, and other resources. Now that she is retired, and that, as she intended, others are continuing to share what she has learned, she continues to learn from those who have mental health issues and those who support them. She is a frequent contributor to this site.