‘Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply’
Think back to Freshers’ week or the first time you went along to a new society or sports class. Think of all the times you asked what the person’s name was, where their hometown was and what they were studying? Now think of all the times you forgot the answers to these questions, even thirty seconds after you’d asked them. We can have conversations in which we hear the answers, respond to them even, but not truly listen; our minds are focussed elsewhere or we’re too busy thinking of the next question we’re going to ask. We can do the same when we talk to friends or family – even though we care about the conversation and want to do our best to help, we can be so focussed on finding a practical solution that we forget to listen, I mean really listen, to how the other person is feeling.
Listening is an underrated and under-practised skill. Whilst many of us would say we spend a lot of time listening to others or that we consider listening to be a skill that we mastered at a young age, it’s important to consider whether we are truly listening, or whether we are actually only hearing. We might consider listening to be an easy thing to do, but in my experience, listening is a skill which needs to be learned and above all, needs to be practised. Hearing is an involuntary action requiring little or no conscious thought and isn’t only distinguished by whether or not we respond to the noise or sound, but instead whether we actually think about what it is that we are hearing. You can hear without listening but you cannot listen without hearing.
In my role as a Nightline volunteer I have seen the importance of listening and the powerful effect that it can have on another person. Nightline is non-advisory, which means the whole emphasis of the conversation is on listening to the caller and being there with them in that moment to offer a safe space for them if they want to talk. It isn’t about finding solutions or thinking about your own opinion or reaction to what is being said, but instead it’s about making the other person the focus of the conversation and allowing them to feel that you are there for them and entirely concentrated on what they are saying. In looking for solutions or focussing on the next question that we can ask or what we would do if we were in their position, we are shifting the focus of the conversation onto ourselves.
Whilst it’s easy to say that you would be there for someone if they needed you, when it comes around to it, it can be daunting and you may worry about how you will support that person or what you will say. When I was first training to be a Nightline volunteer, I was worried that I wouldn’t know what to say if someone called and was upset or that I’d say the wrong things and make it worse. However, I came to realise that my own worry was becoming the main focus of my attention and that the fear of getting it wrong was stopping me from truly listening and engaging with the conversation. When I stopped worrying and instead focussed entirely on what the other person was saying, really trying to understand how that made them feel, I found that I became a much better listener and I was able to support them much more naturally.
Often people need someone to be there not to give them advice but to just be there with them. If the other person is upset we often think our role as a listener is to cheer them up – instead, we can offer support by recognising their upset and being with them in whatever way they feel comfortable with, whether that be talking things through, sitting in silence so that they’re not alone, or just reassuring them that we’re there for them and how they’re feeling is okay. More often than not, people will forget what you said but they won’t forget how you made them feel.
Durham Nightline is a student listening service open between the hours of 9pm and 7am, each night of term, with two student volunteers available to answer phone calls and reply to Instant Messages. You can find Nightline’s number on the back of your campus card or on DUO, or contact them via their instant messaging system at: community.dur.ac.uk/nightline/ All calls will be charged at your standard network rate.