Two men having a conversation out front of a building

"Simply listening can go a long way in getting him to open up, and helping him feel that’s he’s not alone."

When supporting a man who is experiencing a mental health challenge, like depression, it can be tough figuring out how to help or what to say. It can be especially daunting when we put pressure on ourselves to say the right thing or try to ‘solve’ someone’s issues for them. We often forget that one of the most valuable tools for supporting another person is active listening.

Listening attentively reduces the feeling of pressure and judgment, while also making the person we’re trying to support feel more deeply understood and cared for.[1] Active listening improves feelings of closeness and trust between people, and trust fosters a more comfortable environment for the other person to express what’s really bothering them.[1]

Feeling heard and understood by others in our lives is a fundamental human need, and active listening plays a critical role in helping fill that need for others.

Our page on Providing Support has tips on how to start a conversation with a man you may be concerned about, but how do we best support him after that? Active listening is a key tool for having that initial conversation and providing ongoing support for someone.

This article will cover key components of active listening, including silence, non-verbal cues, and verbal strategies, so we can best support the men in our lives.

Make Use of Silence

Try and find comfort in leaving room for silence while talking with the person you care about. Attending to the conversation through silence encourages more self-disclosure; guys often feel more comfortable talking about particularly stressful thoughts and experiences when the person they’re speaking to is attentively listening and not interrupting.[2]

Allowing the person you’re supporting to finish their thoughts without interruption communicates that we care about them and value what they have to say.[3] Even when they finish their thought, try letting the silence hang for a moment instead of immediately offering a response. This will let them know that we’re genuinely trying to absorb what they’re telling us. Silence doesn’t have to be uncomfortable – embrace it!

Non-Verbal Communication

Non-verbal gestures are another great way to signal that you’re fully present and engaged in a conversation. Non-verbal cues signal our interest in and attention to the person who is speaking and can be a useful way to encourage him to continue sharing.[2]

Non-verbal communication can include the following:

Keep an open posture

  • Instead of physically closing yourself off by crossing your arms or hunching over, open your chest up and keep your arms at your side, on your chair’s arms, or put your hands in your lap.
  • An open posture communicates that you are open to what the other person has to say.

Practice good eye-contact

  • This communicates that you’re paying attention to the other person and are interested in hearing whatever they want to share.

Try sitting relatively still

  • While it’s something you can’t always control or don’t always notice, fidgeting (biting nails, tapping a foot, playing with the string of your hoodie, checking your phone) can signal you’re uninterested or bored.

Use Vocal Cues

When the other person is talking, here are some ways you can show them that you’re with them:

  • Vocalizations like “hmm”, “mhm”, “yeah”, “uh huh”, “ohhh”, etc. are all simple cues that can express your engagement, thoughtfulness, and consideration of what the other person is saying without interrupting them.
  • Signal reactions through head nods, shaking your head, tilting your head, etc.
  • Express your empathy with what they’re saying through your facial expressions. You can also reflect their facial expressions if it feels natural to you – this can let them know you’re emotionally connected.

Avoiding The ‘Fix It’ Mentality

When we are presented with a problem, even when it’s someone else’s, our gut reaction is often to fix it. When hearing about someone’s struggles, a common, well-meaning response is to immediately offer or suggest a solution or a consolation.

Solutions and consolations are things we want to avoid:

  • A solution can sound like: “Have you talked to someone about this? Like a counsellor or therapist?”
  • A consolation can sound like: “Sorry to hear that work has been bad for you this past week, but at least tomorrow’s Friday. You can relax a bit over the weekend.”

While not always harmful, giving unsolicited advice or consolation like those above can and often does interrupt the active listening process.[1] Giving advice or consolation is also often poorly received; those who open up to us can perceive such “solutions” as dismissive, tone-deaf, or frustrating.[2,4]

Keep in mind that it’s likely that the man we’re trying to support has already tried or considered similar solutions before, so hearing these suggestions repetitively can be a bit exhausting. If the guy does not explicitly ask for advice or help, try to avoid giving it. Instead, consider responding with validation strategies, as described below.

Validate His Experiences

Validation helps communicate empathy and non-judgement.[1] Where you might normally feel the urge to offer solutions or advice, try using simple validation statements followed by silence, giving them room to follow up. Some ideas can include:

  • “I hear you…”
  • “Shit, that sounds really frustrating…”
  • “Oh, no wonder you’ve seemed down, I imagine that this has been really hard to deal with.”
  • “It sounds like this has all been really exhausting for you.”
  • “Considering what you’ve been dealing with, it makes sense that you’re feeling really angry about it all. That would have really pissed me off too.”
  • “It must have been really painful when you found out what happened…”

Clarify His Experiences

Don’t be afraid to ask questions or to explore a little bit if you need to get a better grasp on what the guy is thinking or feeling, or if you need more detail/context. Try these:

  • “What do you mean by…?”
  • “When we were talking before, you mentioned that you’ve been dealing with [insert issue/concern/event that they brought up] … Can you tell me more about this?”
  • “When (or where or how) did this all happen?”
  • “When you say that you don’t care about anything anymore, do you mean you feel kind of disengaged from your hobbies and your work, or do you mean from friends and family as well? Or something else?”

Summarize & Paraphrase

Lastly, summarizing and/or paraphrasing are useful tools to really show the person we’re trying to support that we’ve been listening, catching details, and are trying to understand exactly what concerns, emotions, and current experiences they’re trying to express to us.[2,5]

Instead of trying to add to or drive the conversation onto the next topic, try and restate some specifics from the conversation.

Because the active listening tips we’ve described aren’t discrete, you can also follow your summarizing and/or paraphrasing with validation or clarification. Below are some examples:

  • “So, let me see if I understand all of this. First you had the issues at work with your boss. Then, you started having problems with your wife, which the two of you have been trying to work on, but that’s not really been going anywhere. Then, this week, you found out about the issues with your car which is going to cost a lot to fix. That is a lot of stress to be dealing with all at once, and it’s totally understandable that you’ve been feeling overwhelmed. I imagine that I would be feeling the same.”
    • (Summarize -> Validate)
  • “From what you’ve told me about not being able to control your thoughts anymore, it’s no wonder that you’re having problems with your sleep and concentration. Would you say the negative thoughts and ruminating have gotten to the point of being unmanageable?”
    • (Summarize -> Validate -> Clarify)
  • “Earlier when you called, you mentioned something about you and your girlfriend having a conversation last night that ticked you off. And now, you said she’s been kind of pushing you to the side today. Have there been any specific issues that have come up for you two lately?”
    • (Summarize -> Clarify)

Prioritize Active Listening

Remember that being a positive support begins with the ability to listen and empathize. Try out some of the tips above next time you find yourself supporting a man you care about. Simply listening can go a long way in getting him to open up, and helping him feel that he’s not alone.


References:

  1. Weinstein, N., Itzchakov, G., & Legate, N. (2022). The Motivational Value of Listening During Intimate and Difficult Conversations. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12651
  2. Kuhn, R., Bradbury, T. N., Nussbeck, F. W., & Bodenmann, G. (2018). The power of listening: Lending an ear to the partner during dyadic coping conversations. Journal of Family Psychology, 32(6), 762–772. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000421
  3. Raab, D. (2017). Deep Listening in Personal Relationships. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-empowerment-diary/201708/deep-listening-in-personal-relationships
  4. Davila, J. (2016). Stop Trying to Fix Things, Just Listen! Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/skills-healthy-relationships/201606/stop-trying-fix-things-just-listen
  5. Weger, H., Castle Bell, G., Minei, E.M., & Robinson, M.C. (2014). The Relative Effectiveness of Active Listening in Initial Interactions. International Journal of Listening, 28, 13 – 31. 1080/10904018.2013.813234

THIS IS MEN'S HEALTH WEEK | JUNE 10-16TH, 2024

Men's Health Week takes place annually in mid-June, during the week preceding Father’s Day. The week is not just a campaign, but a call to action for men to take better care of their health and for communities to support men in this endeavour.

Men's Health Week 2024