Its not what you say, its how you listen

Active Listening

Talking about suicide can feel scary. It can be difficult to know what the ‘right’ thing to say is. But, often it’s not what you say that makes a difference, it’s how you listen.

Active Listening doesn’t only mean hearing what somebody is saying. It is the ability to focus completely on them, understand their message, and respond thoughtfully. Many mental health services such as the Samaritans or Nightline, train their volunteers in Active Listening. I was trained as an Active Listener for Nightline while I was at university, so here are some verbal and non-verbal tips that I remember from my experiences volunteering for them.


Ask open questions. Closed questions (questions that can only be answered with a one-word answer) can sometimes be useful when trying to get information, but the constant use of them can make the flow of the conversation difficult. Open questions encourage the person you’re supporting, to talk openly about their experiences and how they’re feeling. Some examples of open questions are: “How are you feeling about…?”, “Tell me more about…”, or “What happened when…?”.

Avoid redirecting the conversation towards yourself. Personal anecdotes can be helpful, as it shows the person you’re listening to that you understand and can relate to what they’re saying. It can encourage them that they are not alone in what they are going through. However, when using personal anecdotes, make sure to ask an open question afterwards, so the conversation is redirected back to the person you’re listening to. They should be the focus of the discussion.

Don’t be afraid to backtrack. If something is mentioned earlier in the conversation but the conversation flow didn’t give opportunity to discuss it in-depth, don’t be afraid to bring it back up again. A way you can do this, is by saying: “Earlier you mentioned this, would you like to talk more about it?”. Not only does it give the person you’re supporting a chance to speak about something that they may be struggling with, but it also shows that you were listening and that you remembered an earlier part of their conversation.

Empathy .  Asking questions is really important for getting information about the speaker’s experiences and feelings, but without empathy, it might feel like an interview. Saying “It sounds like you’re going through a really difficult time”, or “That must have been really hard”, to the person you’re supporting, validates their feelings and shows that you’re understanding how they feel. Empathy can also be linked with an open question to continue the conversation flow, for example: “It can be hard when… how has it been affecting you?”.


Body Language. Looking at the person you’re listening to, even if they’re not looking back at you, is important. If they take a glance at you and you’re looking around the room, or at your watch or phone, it suggests to them that you’re distracted and aren’t really listening. However, if they take a glance at you and you’re looking at them, it shows that your attention is unwavering.

Silences. Sometimes there will be silences in a conversation. Whilst silences can feel uncomfortable, they will always feel more uncomfortable for the listener than they will for the speaker. The person you’re supporting is likely to have so many thoughts that they’re trying to put across into words, they need time to think. This is particularly likely if they aren’t used to talking about how they feel. Silences are important for that. Signs that a silence is necessary for a speaker to have space to think, could be them not finishing a sentence, closing their eyes, or saying “umm” or “errr”. However, signs that a silence is uncomfortable for the speaker could be them looking around the room, or fidgeting. If this happens, ask an open question to get the conversation flowing again.

But, don’t forget that it is okay to not know what to say. Be gentle and patient with yourself; even trained mental health professionals can struggle for words sometimes. And it’s okay to be honest with the person that you’re supporting, and tell them that. Hearing “I don’t know what to say, but I really care about you and I want to try to help” can do wonders for someone who feels alone, scared, and suicidal.

If you need us, we are here. Leave a message on 0115 880 0282, or send an email to


Suicide Crisis Support Officer

Leave a Reply