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Being a good listener

Tips on being there for someone when they need it


Written by SpunOut | View this authors Twitter page and posted in health


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Many mental health campaigns focus on talking and how important it is to speak out and ask for help. While this is vital, sometimes we forget how important listening is. For this year’s mental health campaign, Listening is Helping, SpunOut.ie has decided to focus on the importance of listening, and how having good listening skills, aswell as being able to talk about mental health can really support someone who is going through a difficult time. This also fits in with the Little Things Mental Health campaign which encourages people to lend an ear.

Active listening involves really trying to understand what the other person is saying, without imposing any of your own expectations or judgements. A lot of people may be intimidated at the thought of supporting someone who is going through a tough time as they are afraid that they might say the wrong thing. First of all, it’s perfectly normal to feel like this. Don’t be afraid, as most of the time you will have to say very little, as your job as a listener is not to talk, but instead to provide a space for the other person to do the talking. 

Don’t underestimate the power of simply listening to someone and allowing them to be heard. It might sound simple, and you’re right it is! But sometimes the simplest things can become the hardest to put into practice. Read more below for our top tips on effective listening.

How can I support someone to seek help?

Many people experiencing a mental health problem will choose to confide in friends and family before they speak to a health professional. Read our tips below on how to listen well to give you a little more confidence.

Some tips on how to listen well

  • Simply giving someone the space to talk can take a weight off their shoulders, and help make them feel better. This means giving them uninterrupted time to talk about their concerns.
  • Pay close attention to what they are saying and keep eye contact. If they are finding it difficult to talk let them know that you are there for them and that you want to help. Simply saying something like ‘I know this is difficult to talk about, but thank you for trusting me.’ will put the person at ease.
  • Don’t be afraid of a little silence as it is often all that is needed for the person to open up and speak about what is going on for them. 
  • Ask them how they are and what you can do to support them during this tough time. ‘You haven’t seemed yourself lately. Is there anything I can do to help?’ Don’t be afraid to ask if they are suicidal if you feel they might be. Read our fact sheet on suicide.
  • Listen carefully and pay attention without any judgement. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine how you would feel in their situation.
  • Pay attention to body language as it can reveal a lot about how the person is feeling. They may be fidgeting a lot or unable to keep your eye contact.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you need to, but remember that your main job is to listen and not to talk. However, asking some open questions can often help getting a conversation started.
  • It can be upsetting to see someone you care about upset and distressed, but it’s important that you stay calm. This will help the other person stay calm also.
  • Give a clear message of hope and that there is help out there. Your friend or family member will not always feel like they do today, they will get through this and that you and others will be there for them.

Samaritans Listening Tips

The Samaritans are experts at giving people the space to open up around what has been going on for them. The below tips are based on their active listening skills and can be used to get a friend or loved one to open up about what's going on for them. You can also check out our video on active listening skills below.

1. Ask open questions

Instead of asking questions which only require a yes or no answer, try and ask open questions. This is the How?, What?, Where?, Who? , and Why? Question.

For example instead of saying ‘has this been going on a long time?’, ask ‘how long has this been going on?’

2. Give words of encouragement

Don't forget to give words of encouragement to the person as they tell their story.

3. Summarising

This helps to show the person that you’ve been listening and that you’ve understood what has been said. Summarise what they’ve said and say it back to them. A summary helps to show the individual that you have listened and understood their circumstances and their feelings.

4. Reflecting

Repeating back a word or phrase can encourage people to go on. If someone says, 'So it's been really difficult recently,' you can keep the conversation going simply by repeating a word they used in their sentence. Repeating back a word or phrase encourages the individual to carry on and expand.

5. Clarifying

We all tend to gloss over important or difficult things without thinking. If this happens saying something as simple as ‘tell me more about’ can not only clarify the point for you, but for them as well. Sometimes someone may gloss over an important point. By exploring these areas further you can help them clarify these points for themselves.

6. Reacting

You don’t have to be completely neutral. If whoever you’re talking to has been having a dreadful time, some empathy and understanding is vital. Simply acknowledging this is important, so don’t be afraid to say ‘you’ve had an awful time’. You need to show that you have understood the situation by reacting to it – “That sounds like it is very difficult”

What can I do if someone doesn’t want my help?

It can be difficult if you feel that someone you care about is in a bad place but won’t reach out for help or take the help that you have offered them. This can be frustrating for all involved but it’s important that you remember that there are limits to the help that you can offer. Remember that there is only so much you can do, and try not to beat yourself up about it. Be patient, it may take a while for them to open up and feel comfortable talking with you, and this is perfectly normal. Tell them that you are there for them when they are ready to seek help. If you are worried about the person, it may be time to contact a family member and tell them your concerns.

What can I do if it’s an emergency

There may be times when your friend or family member needs to seek help urgently. They may be experiencing suicidal feelings, and feel that they may act on them, or they may be at risk of harming themselves or others.

In this instance, it’s important that you help them seek medical help as soon as possible. You can accompany your friend to any hospital A&E department and ask for help. If you cannot make your way to hospital, ring 999 or 112. Stay with them while you wait for emergency services to arrive, or go with them to the hospital for help. Read our factsheet on suicide.

How can I look after myself?

Providing support to someone else can be draining and exhausting leaving you feeling totally zapped of energy. Mind yourself and be aware of the impact on your own mental wellbeing.

  • Make time to take a break from supporting your friend and treat yourself to something nice.
  • Know your limits. Be realistic about what support you can offer and try not to take too much on.
  • Even if your friend has asked you not to tell anyone, it is important that you talk to a professional so that your friend can get the support that is needed.
  • Talk to someone you trust. Don’t forget to look after your own mental health by talking to someone else and getting things off your chest.

For SpunOut's mental health campaign this year we are working alongside the Little Things campaign focusing on the 'Lending an ear is lending a hand' Little Thing. Listening is such a powerful skill and we've put together some tips for conversation starters to get people talking about mental health and to help you be a great listener for your friends or family members when they need a little support.

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Published September 28th, 2015
Last updated March 31st, 2017
Tags mental health listening is helping
Can this be improved? Contact editor@spunout.ie if you have any suggestions for this article.

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