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How to Listen: A book review

Case study by Claire McGowan

Offering advice in how to actively listen and engage in conversations about mental health, 'How to Listen' by Kate Colombus provides invaluable practical insights from Samaritans. Claire McGowan gives her thoughts on the book.

From 15–21st May, it was Mental Health Awareness (MHA) week, and this year I decided to read something different. Usually for MHA week, I would look into poems, novels or short stories on the themes of mental health, find something that I resonate with. This year however, I found ‘How to Listen’ by Katie Colombus, and decided that I wanted to get better at helping people in difficult times.

This book credits the amazing work the Samaritans do. Their jobs are to listen to those who call them, those who may be struggling with mental health issues, emotional distress or individuals who may be having thoughts about suicide. The examples of real life cases in this book show that the people who phoned the Samaritans, that phone call changed their life, or even in some cases saved it. I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to understand more about what the Samaritans do and the effect they have on people’s lives.

For Samaritans volunteers, empathy should be given. But courage is also key. I would encourage everybody to be brave when they see somebody who’s upset – go and ask if they are OK.

Before reading this book, I felt that I was good at listening, but what I wasn’t great at was giving advice. I have always worried about giving someone the wrong advice, or that my advice wasn’t even useful. When someone we care about is having a difficult time it is our natural instinct to want to help them, to relieve them from their suffering. We might think we can do this by ‘fixing’ the issue: this might be giving advice, or offering ‘similar’ experiences we have had and what we did in those situations. However, reading this book has made me realise that while I’m not a bad listener, I could be a lot better.

It’s easy to say nothing, or simply sweep it under the carpet […] it’s easy to let ourselves off the hook by thinking, well, I don’t want to make the situation worse. The only way you could make it worse is to talk about yourself too much.

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Listening is not a passive thing. It’s very active. You’re not just taking in what someone is saying; you’re processing it, too.

A lot of the time, we want to offer opinions because we think it will be helpful to others, especially if what the other person is feeling seems familiar to something we have experienced. But a lot of the time, people don’t want or need that. I know that sometimes for me, it can be tempting to quickly say something when the other person stops talking, it’s a habit of mine I want to try and mend. I think my head panics and is like ‘quick! You need to give them your thoughts, otherwise it shows you haven’t been listening’ or ‘quick say that thing before you forget it.’

The thing is, it’s not always helpful, because while that experience might be similar, how that person is feeling may not be. People often share because it relieves some of the pressure they have been experiencing. We might be uncomfortable with pauses or silences because we worry that the other person thinks we don’t care. But what I’ve learnt from this book is actually, pauses and silences give us two things:

  1. The time to reflect, both for the listener and the other individual. The listener is able to process what the other person says, while the person sharing their feelings is able to reflect on what they’ve shared, and think about if there is anything else they want to share.

  2. If not, it gives them that time to explore their feelings. For me, this was really useful to understand, usually I panic that silence appears I haven’t given them enough attention or haven’t listened properly. More often than not, listening is enough.

[…] there’s a space in between, where people want to have someone stand alongside them and just be there while they go through whatever it is they’re going through – not to find a solution, but to simply be there, beside them, for support.

What was also important to understand was that we, as listeners, don’t need to fix things. We may want to, and that isn’t a bad thing, because that shows how much we care for the other person. But, often, what people want is someone to listen to them and support them through whatever it is that is happening in their life. It is better for the individual to come to realise the help or support they may want/need.

What I have also learnt and hope that I can put to good use in the future, is that sometimes the best listening is asking people questions such as ‘what does that mean for you?' or 'what is that like for you?’ because it shows the other person that we want to understand their situation and feelings better. Even repeating what someone has said to clarify it helps, because it shows that other person we haven’t jumped to any conclusions, that we’re not half-listening and simply waiting to give an opinion. That has been a huge and valuable lesson for me to learn.

Overall, I have really found this book amazingly helpful. It makes me want to be a better listener, and it feels like it gives practical and useful advice that I can use. I highly recommend reading this, when we have people we care about, we want to do our best for them, and if that means simply listening, and supporting, then it is something I am more than happy to do.


This article was originally published on aclaireium. You can read the original post here.

'How to Listen' is available to purchase on Amazon here.


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