Thursday, 11 October 2018

The Art of Listening

Working in the world of mental health means that I often get approached by people wanting to ‘talk to me’.  This can mean lots of things. Sometimes they want advice and usually that conversation starts with something like ‘can I ask your advice’, sometimes they expect you to have the answers to their problems, sometimes they just want someone to talk to who won’t judge them or try to fix them. Last week I spent a day with Clear Sky learning how to listen and help children open up through play therapy and I want to share a few of the key things I walked away with.

So confession time: I am a fixer, I want to make things better, offer up my ‘wealth’ of knowledge.  I am not a good listener, I try to show empathy by finding similar examples in my life to show ‘I know what they are going through’.  Sentences such as ‘A similar thing happened..’ ‘when I was little…’ tumble unthinkingly from my mouth.
By choosing an object we shared something more personal, it allowed us all to open up.

I need to learn to listen, to really listen and it is hard.  Having said that showing you are listening isn’t too hard, I am usually interested in what I am being told, but speaking to someone who is deliberately ignoring me that is hard. Try talking to someone who is constantly fiddling with their phone, picking at their nails, staring at the ceiling...well I am sure you have experienced it (especially the first one!).  Face the talker, nod, uncross your arms and put your phone away: so far so good.

When people talk to me my mind races off to find solutions where none are sought, I have to bite my tongue to listen well.  So I was taught to show empathy by reflecting back what I hear ‘so you felt sad’, ‘that made you feel angry’, ‘so they didn’t hear what you said’.  I find it hard and in the safety of a training situation role play helped me understand how to do this more effectively. By identifying what I needed to reflect back my own thoughts were stopped and I found I was trying much harder to identify how the speaker was feeling - a bit of a revelation.

But how can we build relationships that enable people to open up?  The answer is sometimes we can’t but there are ways to facilitate it.  Adults seek out help if they want it, they have usually have trusted friends, they have the language to express their feelings and the ability to understand their feelings and where they may stem from, but this isn’t the case for children.  Regardless of age objects offer a way into talking and opening up. At the start of the day we were asked to choose one or two objects from a wide array and say why we had chosen them. Suddenly rather than just saying ‘Hi I’m… I teach ... age group, at …. school’, we share something more personal and were immediately more open as a group, the formal barriers were broken down.  It is easy to see how offering play is a way to explore and understand child’s feelings and build a relationship with a child, and allow them to explore their trauma and emotions.

I know my listening skills need more practice and but the day spent with Clear Sky has really helped me allowing me the opportunity to explore why I struggle and put the theory into practice in a safe situation.  

Reflecting back on my time as a mentor in school I know I didn’t always do these things.  If a child feels you are a safe adult they may well open up to you and all you need to do is listen.  I have spoken to so many young people for whom the turning point for their recovery was when a teacher actually listened.  Don’t underestimate the power of listening.

Huge thanks to Clear Sky for such an amazing day.

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