It was the best of times and the worst of times – a sentence applied to the French Revolution but could equally fit for Christmas. While many people long for this season, others dread it. The fact is that for many at Christmas, the hymn ‘Silent Night’ is all too real, and they will be aching for someone to break the silence by calling in, sending a text, or phoning to offer that all-important human contact. Unfortunately, real listening is often in short supply over Christmas when life can be rushed, stressed and frantic
Each year, Samaritans receive half a million calls from people needing to voice a problem or looking for company, and all the helping services can be particularly busy at Christmas. Aware, who offer a supporting light through depression, is another organisation in the listening space. Their Support Line service actively listens to callers’ concerns, questions and reasons for calling. SeniorLine, Ireland’s national listening service for older people equally understands the need to give time to callers, to listen and engage, and then together consider helpful caller options.
If you have a friend who may be alone, Christmas is a good time to reach out for a chat. Small talk can be surprisingly helpful, all conversation does not necessarily need to be deep and meaningful. With any sincere exchange you are making real human contact.
Most people just desperately want to talk and need someone who will listen with compassion and without judgement. But too often we interrupt, we are impatient, we want to have our say on the subject.
Real listening takes time and patience but it confers positive benefits on all concerned. It can help to build trust and positive relationships, it can facilitate in resolving conflict, (often very necessary at Christmas), it can offer the speaker a place to voice problems and receive feedback. It can help us learn something new, useful and to our advantage.
So what is real, active listening and what distinguishes it from merely hearing another person? Active listening is a valuable skill in which the listener makes a conscious effort to understand the speaker’s entire message. You, as the listener, do this by resisting the impulse to interrupt with comments or questions at the first opportunity, and by giving clear signals that help the speaker feel heard – a range of verbal and non-verbal gestures, such as nods, smiles, eye contact, and encouraging cues speak volumes.
Ask open questions to encourage the person to speak and open up to a bigger picture if that is relevant, rather than eliciting a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Try to refrain from giving advice or telling the other person what to do. Each person is an expert on their own lives and may not want advice, unless they ask for it.
Giving this time and space can be particularly valuable at Christmas. We all know how excess alcohol, the coming together of the extended family and unrealistic expectations can heighten the emotions and lead to rows and misunderstandings. It is no coincidence that January is known as Divorce Month as the number of filings for separation or divorce begin to climb during the first month of each year.
Active listening is particularly helpful in defusing conflict because it helps us to be open to the perspective of others, recognise other people’s feelings and, perhaps, move forward towards a resolution. Of course, when it comes to frank family discussions, the listener may hear something about themselves they do not like. The temptation is to become immediately defensive, to contradict or challenge. It may be tough to consider what is being said and examine if there is any truth in it before responding. This is not easy. But if there is any mutual trust it may be possible to be honest with self, rather than scoring points. Honesty can build a firm foundation for the future.
There are people who will struggle to believe that just listening can be so powerful, but really listening to someone is one of the greatest gifts we can give them. Give it a try.
Samaritans open 24 hours daily Freefone 116123
Aware open 10am-10pm daily 1800 80 48 48
SeniorLine open 10am-10pm daily 1800 80 45 91