Don’t panic, just listen

Don’t panic, just listen

During these trying times, the support of colleagues, friends, and supervisors has become more important for wellbeing than ever. There’s been an increase in mental health issues around the world, but the resources to tackle these issues have not increased to a corresponding degree.

People are left to their own devices and therefore are more prone to seek help from their immediate surroundings. I constantly hear about supervisors who don’t know how to handle the feelings and worries of their doctoral researchers and about colleagues who are worried for their peers.

And one of the most frequent question I get nowadays is, “How should I ask someone if they are ok or how should I react if someone opens up to me about their problems?”

We, as humans, have an innate need to fix and solve problems. So, if someone comes to talk to you about their issues, you might panic, because you don’t know how to fix it. And then, instead of listening, you might start thinking about ways to solve the issue.

But here’s the catch – you don’t need to fix it. You just need to be there, and listen. Without judgment.

By listening, you signal to the other person that they have a right to feel this way. If you immediately suggest solutions, you might undermine the person’s feelings.

You also need to remember that you are not responsible for other people’s feelings (unless, of course, you’ve done something to upset them). You do not need to take the feelings away. The feelings are not the issue, the ongoing situation and the environment we have to live in is.

So, how should you react when someone seems a bit down or comes to you to talk about how they are feeling? Instead of panicking:

  1. Listen.
  2. Ask clarifying questions.
  3. Show that you care about how the other person is feeling.
  4. Help them to think about what needs to be solved, what kind of help they need, and what you can do to help. But also remember to not get too active, but let them talk about their worries.
  5. And remind yourself that you are not responsible. You can only do so much. You have to take care of yourself also.

Sometimes it just helps to get things off one’s chest. And all problems cannot be solved, they just have to be tolerated.

It’s really important to make sure that the environment is psychologically safe and that everyone feels they can be themselves and express their worries, if need be. On the other hand, focusing too much on overly positive things, might send the message that it’s not allowed to have negative feelings.

All feelings are allowed. We are, after all, only human.

And you do not need to be anything else than human. That’s good enough.


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