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Want to support family or friends who may be having a hard time? Try some active listening

We all like to think we’re good friends and listeners but here are some tips to brush up on your skills, and really help someone in need…
If it is important enough for you to worry about, then it’s important enough for us to want to listen.

SO SAYS RACHEL Wright, policy and communications manager for the Samaritans.

There are lessons that we can all take and apply to our everyday lives from the work that the Samaritans does so tirelessly all year round.

They know how powerful listening can be, and they want to help Irish people to get better at it, in order to support each other through the tough times that life brings.

So, what can I do?

One third of us sometimes feel overwhelmed by our problems – with 26% of people feeling that they don’t have anyone to talk to about their problems. 40% of people said they don’t want to burden others with their feelings. As Rachel says:

People do have that fear and anxiety about opening up, but a lot of the time when someone does that, they’ll find it’s not as scary as they think it is.

In fact, connecting with people is proven to have a positive impact on how we feel. Breaking the initial barrier of opening up to someone is an act we perceive to be worse than it is. Plus it’s a two-way street – if you open up to someone, they may feel more comfortable sharing their problems with you in future.

gub Shutterstock Shutterstock

What is active listening?

A lot of conversations in Ireland today are just two people waiting to speak, not two people really listening.

That’s the message Samaritans are trying to get out there – about the quality of the listening you give to your loved ones.

Samaritans are experts at listening. Not giving advice, not offering an opinion – just listening. Their helpline volunteers are trained in listening actively, and they see first-hand how this helps people whose mental health may be under strain. Of course, you don’t have to be as experienced or skilled as the Samaritans to help those around you – just willing to listen.

How to do it

The Samaritans have some handy tips for anyone who wants to reach out and show a friend they’re there for them, using the below acronym:

  • Show you care
  • Have patience
  • Use open questions
  • Say it back
  • Have courage


1. Show you care

In today’s digital age, life is busy and hectic. Multi-tasking is now the norm and often we have our smartphone in our hands. To listen to someone, you need to give them your full attention. Put away your phone and make eye contact. Focus on the person across from you.

2. Have patience

It may take time before a person is ready to open up. That’s okay. Don’t rush them – wait. If they pause, let them finish. Count to three in your head once your friend or loved one pauses, and give them some time to elaborate. It may be difficult for them to articulate what they mean or how they are feeling. Trust them.

3. Use open questions

“Tell me more.” 

Don’t jump in with your own ideas about how the person is feeling. Try to be non-judgemental, and ask questions that need more than just a “yes” or “no” response. This encourages people to talk and shows that you care. Nothing they say is right or wrong.

“How are you feeling today?”

4. Say it back

Check that you’ve understood and show you’re paying attention, but try to avoid interrupting or offering a direct solution. People may not be looking for all the answers, but just to get it out. Try not to put your own interpretation on a situation and just have a conversation instead.

5. Have courage

You don’t have to fill a silence. Sometimes being there is about body language and what you don’t say. If someone feels uncomfortable or you think you may have been intruding, then don’t push it. But you might be surprised at how willing people are to share what’s on their mind if you show that you are willing to listen.

Listening is helping

This video from SpunOut.ie shows the power of active listening amongst friends. Jen started experiencing chronic anxiety from a young age, suffering her first panic attack when still in secondary school.

I didn’t know how to tell my friends. I thought they might look down on me or say “Oh, she’s crazy” or something.

SpunOut.ie / YouTube

Eventually, Jen  did confide in her friends – and was pleasantly surprised by what she found once she had broken the initial barrier.

“I was happy that she came to me,” Aoife says, “I’m going to make an extra effort to make sure that she always comes out and gets involved. I knew there was something going on… I was kind of waiting for her to come and tell me.”

As the two friends learned, giving each other the space to talk is key. By becoming better listeners, we can not only become better friends – but also potentially save lives.

Reach out

The Samaritans wants to let people know that the helpline is always there, a ready and waiting ear for anyone who needs to talk – about any problem, big or small.

As Rachel says: “During the summer months, people may feel more under pressure to be out having a good time and their worries or sense of isolation can be worsened. Last year, we answered over 50,000 calls for help each month during summer.”


  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

For information on what to do or where to go, please see yourmentalhealth.ie.

The #LittleThings campaign from yourmentalhealth.ie is a national effort by the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention and scores of partner organisations and support groups to bring information, awareness, advice and support around mental health for you and your loved ones. Check out the Wellness Workshop – a free online tool designed to give you support to improve your mental wellness.

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