Often, as soon as someone discloses about their mental health or something going on in their life, I feel this immediate rush of helplessness. Fear and powerlessness wash over me. Then the adrenaline kicks in and my mind starts running through a mental catalogue of previous experiences, resources, and ways I think they can solve their problem. Time speeds up, I feel like they’re waiting for my response, what do I say??…
I’ve tried to put in writing a few mental notes I challenge myself with after someone tells me about their mental health (or any life challenge really). I’ve tried to let you into some of my thought process and feelings while I engage with people. Some of these may be personal to me, so if something doesn’t resonate with you, you could use this as a starting point for reflecting on your own responses.
These tips below aren’t a formula or a checklist I walk through, but rather ongoing self-reflection and actions I do throughout the conversation. Feel free to add your own, or let others know what you do through the comments below.
1. Take a breath
Take a breath.
In my experience, many times these conversations come up unexpectedly, whether you read a message while you’re out doing errands, or someone brings it up during coffee. I try to take a breath so I can shift out of what I’m doing or thinking, into being present and listening.
2. Take your time
If you know you can’t be present, don’t be afraid to let them know. Perhaps you’re about to enter a meeting or go to sleep. Let them know you want to hear them out, that you appreciate them trusting you with what they’ve said and ask if you can come back in an hour, or tomorrow morning, so you can really listen to what they have to say. Initiate that future conversation. (Of course, if it’s an emergency, take the appropriate action.)
If you’re worried about cutting the conversation off, let them know how much time you have, and be fully present during that time. Explain your situation, ask how you can help within your means. Maybe you can’t be there for them, but they would just like to message you for you to read when you can, or maybe they’d like your prayer. Consider asking if they have somebody else they can talk to, or something they can do in the meantime.
Make sure you’re listening to them, and not to yourself.
Often in these conversations I catch myself thinking about what to say before the other person has finished talking. Sometimes I’m busy trying to find a solution or come up with a meaningful example from a past experience. So often we fall into the trap of listening to provide a solution, or, listening or constructing what we want to say in response. Try to put aside that internal voice and come back to listening to them.
Listen until they feel heard, not until you think you understand. Have you ever felt like you really heard and understood what someone was saying, but later on you realise you got it wrong? Or, perhaps you’ve felt like you understood the other person, but they don’t think you do. Remember, when someone is telling you their story, it’s not the same story as someone else you know who went through something similar, listen to their story.
4. Reflect Back & Continue Listening
Continue listening. Clarify, and try to understand.
Sometimes, especially online, it’s hard to show that you’re listening. In real life, we have the help of eye contact and body language. Regardless, both online and offline, it’s not only important that you are listening, but the other person also feels like you are listening. A little ironically, I read the beginning of this article to my husband, and multiple times I said “Hey! Are you listening?”. He said “Yes! I’m listening!”, yet he was looking away from me or resting his head across the table. From experience, I understand he listens well regardless of what he is doing, and often studies and listens to podcasts at the same time. However, though he was listening, I didn’t feel like he was listening.
If you’re a bit unsure if they feel heard, ask! Something like “Hey, I just wanted to say that I’m listening. I might write mm, or react to your message, and that’s me trying to show that I’m still here and listening. Is that ok for you?”
Or maybe you find eye contact hard, that’s ok. Often when I counsel over the phone, sitting still makes my mind wander and I find it harder to listen. So, I ask my clients, “Is it ok if I fiddle with something while I talk to you? I find it easier to listen and focus when I do that.” Most often they say, “Yes, of course, me too!”.
I also use this very simple action of reflecting back. This is something I use in many of my interactions, whether the counselling room or with friends, or with little children when they play. I try to show that I am listening and clarifying if I understand by echoing back what they have said. It’s not mimicking but rather a way of paraphrasing in a way that asks or shows hey, this is what I heard, is that right?. Let me use an example.
A friend might say to me “Oh, my husband just doesn’t get it! He thinks when I complain, that I’m telling him to cook or to clean, but I just want him to see that I’m cooking and cleaning and just acknowledge it! I’m not asking him to do it, just to see that I am.”
I might reflect back “Oh right… it sounds like you feel unrecognised? It’s not that you want him to do anything, just acknowledge what you’ve done…?” (Reflect back tentatively. I often use the question marks, or the tone of a question in conversation, to give the other person freedom to correct me if I’m wrong)
5. You are not their Saviour
Sometimes I find myself responding immediately to any message of distress because I fear the consequences of not responding immediately. I think, “What if they need me?”, “I have to help them!”, “If not me, who else?”.
I realise that often when I think these thoughts, I am unconsciously believing that they need me and that I have the answer. The term may be a little strong, but I tell myself “Calm down Vicky, you’re not their Saviour.” Maybe you can reflect on how and why you respond the way you do to people’s distress.
Of course, there are times when people are wanting solutions or advice and sometimes it’s very appropriate and necessary. Consider what they are really wanting from you and ask if they want solutions or advice.
Honestly, when I talk to someone about a challenge, I rarely want solutions or advice. What I crave is to be heard and understood. For me, most of the time, feeling heard and understood is the solution. Maybe this is true for you too. Or maybe not. Regardless, I err on the side of caution and focus on listening and understanding. Then, if I’m wondering if the person is wanting advice, I ask. I would say something like “oh man, that sounds really hard… I’m happy to just keep listening. I just was wondering if you’d like me to just listen or you’d like my thoughts about what to do?”
More often than not, the solution won’t be you. It may sound harsh, but it’s true. Consider the privilege of them trusting you to know and wanting you to be there with them in this difficult time. Value being with them.
6. Ask if You Don’t Understand, Ask How to Help
If you’re not sure you understand, ask. Asking seems to be a running theme, but if you believe you aren’t their Saviour and you believe the solution isn’t you, it’s ok not to know.
Many of us want to help but just don’t know how. Well, the person who is most likely to know how, is the person telling you what’s going on! Ask how to help, that’s how you can help. For me personally, letting the other person guide me in helping takes away the burden of helplessness, it’s very liberating (and when I’m asked, I feel heard and empowered).
I am reminded that hope for me, and I believe for others as well, is not found in another human or theory or professional. Please don’t take this the wrong way. I would always advocate for seeking professional help if needed. What I am saying is that professional help is a valuable tool of healing, but it is ultimately human. Interventions, professionals, diagnoses, these are good tools in a world that is still limited in understanding. Use them, use them often, but also know they can fall short (such are all things in this broken, finite, world).
For those of you who have faith, this is one of my most valuable and powerful tips. So often I feel absolutely helpless, I struggle to find the words, I am just floored by the brokenness of life… and often that’s reflective of how the other person feels too. If you are trying to help, yet feel helpless, go to the Creator. God is the one who made this world and who made the person you care for. If anyone can know how to help, it is Him.
“You are forgiving and good, O Lord,
Abounding in love to all you call to you.
Hear my prayer, O Lord;
Listen to my cry for mercy.
In the day of trouble I will call to you, For you will answer me.”
– Psalm 86:5-7
by Vicky Rong