How to Listen With Compassion and Understanding

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I’ve come to realize that one of the most important forms of connection is communication and how we communicate with one another. I don’t simply mean by speaking or being verbal – you can convey connection through your body language and vulnerability. For those struggling mentally, it may be difficult for them to provide any form of communication. They may want to hide in their caves or brave-out their feelings or smile through the pain. So, when someone does choose to speak with you about how they are feeling, it is incredibly important to properly and compassionately communicate with them, because they’ve trusted you.


As a person who has spoken about my struggles and listened to others speak about theirs, I know how emotional and sensitive it can be to provide and receive delicate information. So, if your friend or loved one has decided to reach out to you for help but you’re unsure how to properly console or listen to them, here are some tips on how to communicate effectively.   


Listen to Understand Rather Than to Respond

When someone is sharing their thoughts it’s because they want to be understood. Whatever their message is, they want you, as the listener, to acknowledge their point of view. 

  • Listen without judgment – I don’t even mean judgment in a negative way, simply that when we give opinion to someone’s words, we immediately begin to hear what we want to hear rather than what the person is saying. This may lead to responding in a way that shuts down the individual who is speaking. When your friend is speaking, what they are looking for is someone with an open mind and open ears.  


Observe How the Person is Speaking 

Communication is more than just verbal. Oftentimes it can be how the person is speaking as well as how they are acting. Look for the following: 

  • The type of language they’re using – positive or negative 
  • The speed at which they’re speaking
  • Are they having trouble making eye contact?
  • Are they fidgeting? 
  • Listen to the tone of their voice – a critical aspect for understanding the emotion your friend may be feeling. This is important because sometimes they may not tell you that they’re sad or anxious or lost. But they want to. 


Actively Listen

Do more than just hear your friend speak. Providing questions or comments is a useful technique for active listening and engagement. 

  • “What I hear you saying is…”
  • “Was that difficult?”
  • “How did you feel after that?”
  • “Are you okay?”


Be Fully Present

Provide absolute attention so they feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with you. People want to feel heard, especially when they’re being vulnerable.  

  • Look them in the eyes when they’re speaking
  • Nod or vocally respond at appropriate points so they know you’re engaged
  • Silence your phone to avoid distractions 


Create a Safe Space

Designate a safe space to talk and make rules for the space: You can say anything, and there will be no consequences for sharing (will not be held against you later). This tactic can be especially useful for parents and teens.

  • Agree to be completely honest 
  • Ask questions, or pick a subject
  • Safe space recommendations: Driving in a car (amazing conversations can happen); walking outside; or making a meal together



Though you may not be able to fully relate to a person’s specific situation, you are likely able to relate to how they’re feeling.

  • Allow yourself to be vulnerable in that moment. You don’t need to share your vulnerabilities out loud, but if you can allow yourself, you can better relate to the speaker’s feelings.  
  • Empathy builds connection, which can make it easier to listen to and understand someone else.    
  • As Brene Brown, a University of Houston professor explained in her speech about empathy, “empathy is feeling with people.”


Sometimes All You Need to Do is Be There

Sometimes people don’t need or want opinions or advice. They just want to know that someone cares enough to listen. You don’t need to try to fix their situation or life, just be kind and truly listen to what they are saying. 


It can be an emotional undertaking to engage in such a vulnerable way, for both the speaker and listener. But it’s important to understand how to communicate with compassion and without judgment. I know it’s easy to immediately diagnose a situation, but there are so many more complexities to a person’s feelings and situations than we may be able to understand. These pieces of advice are important in any conversation, not just the ones regarding mental health.


About the Author

Cole Swanson

My name is Cole Swanson, I’m a young creative who loves to follow my passions and aims to make a mark on the world around me. Through my love of writing, I have paved myself a path that allows me to always tell stories. With each blog post, I desire to share a story in hopes that it allows others to find the courage to share their own.

I’ve been actively working on my own mental health for the past three years. During that period, I learned of the struggles of wanting to give up trying to improve myself, as well as of the joy I feel when I know I’m becoming healthier.



The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of NAMI Eastside. NAMI Eastside will not be held liable for false, inaccurate, inappropriate or incomplete information. The content should be used for general information purposes only.