A friend of mine has been distressed and so we’ve been talking more than usual lately. They asked me if I could talk to their family about how to treat them when they’re having a hard time because I’m such a good listener and their family only freaks them out or makes them angry. To which I said: “First of all please tell my husband that you think I’m a good listener! He’ll be amazed!”
In all seriousness though, what I learned about being a good listener actually came from my husband Todd and how he had to learn to listen to me when I was distressed. So really I just try to act like Todd when I’m talking to my friend. I’m not hurting anymore, so I’ve picked a picture of myself for this post from a time when I was hurting very much so you can see the anxiety that was there, and yet also my humanity. There was a lot of love for humanity in me then, and I think it comes through in this picture.
I will share two things from Todd that I channel when talking to my struggling friend on the phone:
First, to use an expression from teaching, I show them unconditional positive regard. This means that no matter what the friend says I continue to view them as fully human and worthy of love and respect and I don’t take what they say personally if they get triggered by my reaction. I treat this, instead, as something to learn from about how to interact with them in the future. (Obviously there are some things that need reporting, like any ideas of causing harm to people or self – never keep this kind of thing confidential and never leave a person who is suicidal unattended. Obviously if they are violent or dangerous, leave).
And second, I never push them to give me more information than they’re sharing. I just repeat back with some variation what they’ve already said with genuine feeling and interest to show that I’m listening, that I care, and that I want to hear more if they want to share. This is so important, especially if the person is experiencing paranoia, that you are not pushing them to share more than they want, which will just make them more anxious, paranoid and isolated.
Honestly, I recommend taking classes or talking to a therapist about how you can help your loved one since every person with mental illness is mentally ill in their own way. I’m just sharing my experience here.
And know that things may not be this hard forever! The brain changes! Especially with medical help and therapy! And if you take some therapy to help yourself cope then it will greatly help your family unit.