The essential do’s and don’ts of a good listener

Follow these expert tips if you want to be a supportive friend. By Katie Wright
The essential do’s and don’ts of a good listener

Even if you think your pal is complaining about something trivial, try to have empathy for their situation

HAVE you ever met up with a mate in the hopes of offloading about a tricky situation you’re facing, only to find that they completely derail the conversation, harp on about their own problems and leave you feeling worse than when you arrived?

Even the most well-meaning people can struggle when faced with a friend in need, which is why it’s important to follow a few basic principles when conversation turns to an emotive topic.

Ahead of Samaritans Awareness Day on July 24, which highlights the charity’s 24-hour phone service, we asked psychology experts for their advice on what you should – and shouldn’t – say and do in order to be a good listener.

Do give them your full attention

We all know that person who can’t stop checking their phone or replying to texts, even in the middle of a chat – that’s a big no-no when you need to lend an ear to a friend or family member.

“Try to reduce any distractions, e.g. phones or possible interruptions,” says Dr Hannah Wilson, head of clinical governance and clinical psychology lead at mental wellbeing app Kooth (

“Give the person time to share what they want to – try not to rush in with questions or responses, as it may interrupt what someone else is saying.”

Debra Longsdale, therapy services director at Priory Healthcare, speaking on behalf of mental health app My Possible Self (, advises: “If you’re finding it particularly difficult to concentrate on what someone is saying, try repeating their words mentally as they say them. This will reinforce their message and help you to stay focused.”

Do put yourself in their shoes

Even if you think your pal is complaining about something trivial, try to have empathy for their situation.

“Try to put yourself in the other person’s position, and to understand their perspective,” says Wilson, and don’t attempt to minimise the issue by using the phrase ‘at least’ in response.

“It can leave people thinking that they should not be feeling the way they are.”

Longsdale says the key with listening is allowing people to vocalise their emotions –

“By turning their negative into a positive, this can sometimes make the other [person] feel like they don’t have a ‘valid’ worry. Or ‘silly’ for being down about something.”

Wilson adds: “Sometimes it can be more helpful to acknowledge that something is difficult/awful/unfair.”

Do be aware of how you come across

Your voice and body language can convey a lot, so be mindful of your tone and non-verbal communication.

“Try to convey care and warmth,” Wilson says.

“Recognise that different people need different things when they’re talking about difficult topics. Some people may like to sit close and hug or hold hands whilst speaking, whilst others may need some space, or prefer to talk whilst doing something e.g. walking or driving.”

Don’t make it about you

“As a general (and simple) rule, it’s always best to aim to speak less than they do,” says Longsdale.

“Try not to jump in too much with your own relatable experiences. This isn’t giving the other person the space to express themselves.”

Even if you think you’ve been through the exact same situation, your friend might be handling the situation differently.

While Wilson says: “Try just to listen to the other person, or perhaps ask, ‘Would it be helpful if I shared a similar experience that I had?’”

Don’t offer unsolicited advice

Unless you’re specifically asked for advice, it’s best to avoid telling the person what you think they should do.

“Often we jump into giving practical solutions, but this may not be what’s needed or wanted,” warns Wilson. “Ask the other person what you can do to help them, instead of assuming what they need.”

If you’re itching offer your two cents or don’t know what to say, Longsdale suggests: “Try validation phrases such as, ‘That sounds tricky’, or, ‘Sounds like you have a lot think about’. These help people feel heard and understood.”

Call Samaritans free any time on 116 123. Or visit

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