Professional mental health workers and counsellors are trained in the key principles of non-judgemental listening. Mental Health First Aiders are also given some training in this area too in order to help a person experiencing a mental health issue before they can access professional help. However, it would be beneficial if we all had knowledge in this area. Having this awareness can help you in situations where you are faced with a critical situation, or when you are speaking to someone in distress.
What do we mean by ‘non-judgemental listening’?
Non-judgemental listening is about trying to really understand the other person. It is about going beyond just hearing the words spoken and involves understanding exactly what the other person is saying.
As the listener, we should put our own views aside and try not to get distracted by our personal thoughts and feelings. It is also not always appropriate to react to what the other person is saying, we should continue to listen and respect them. Our aim is to not judge or criticise the other person, but to simply listen to and receive what they are saying.
Listening without judgement really allows the speaker to feel heard and valued.
The core conditions
There are 3 conditions, which together, are necessary to form a safe environment where the person feels comfortable enough to speak openly without the fear of judgement. It is important that the speaker feels able to talk honestly in a trusting environment.
- Acceptance – even though the other person’s views may be different to ours, it is essential that we respect and accept them. We should be understanding of the other’s experiences, regardless of our own.
- Genuineness – it is important that your body language matches what you say in order to show the speaker that what you say is genuine.
- Empathy – try to really understand and hear what the other person is saying. Imagine yourself in their position in order to truly feel what they are feeling.
Verbal listening skills
In order to respect the speaker, and to ensure they feel comfortable enough to continue speaking openly and honestly, there are certain skills which should be learnt. It is important to pay attention and listen without interrupting to ensure the speaker feels respected. Where appropriate, follow up questions can be asked to clarify your understanding of what has just been said. As well as this, it is good practise to summarise what the other person has told you and how they are feeling – this allows the speaker to know that you are following what they are saying. As well as listening to what is being said, taking notice of the speaker’s tone of voice and body language can also give clues as to how they are feeling.
Non-verbal listening skills
As mentioned before, it is important that your body language matches what you say in order to show what you are saying is truly genuine. In order to show that you are accepting, and to create a comfortable environment for the speaker, use an appropriate amount of eye contact. Try to sit at a right angle to the speaker to ensure you each have your own space and are not directly opposite each other as this can often seem threatening. Do not cross your arms or keep a closed body position and this can come across and confrontational and standoffish.
Small prompts such as ‘hmm’ can be reassuring to the speaker and confirms that you are still engaged with what they are saying. Equally, silence can also be supportive as it allows the speaker room to think and reflect.
The benefits of non-judgemental listening
It takes time and a conscious effort to learn these skills, however there are countless benefits to listening without judgement:
- We are able to fully understand the speaker without being distracted by our own thoughts and experiences.
- If the speaker feels safe in their environment, they are more likely to speak openly and feel more comfortable.
- By allowing them to speak without interruption, the speaker is able to work through and understand their own situation more quickly.
- Young people especially are able to detect judgement from another – if they don’t feel accepted they may stop opening up to you and being honest.
- Research has found that empathic listening can have substantial benefits on the speaker’s mental health.
Do’s and don’ts
Do try to fully understand how the speaker feels and what they are saying, even if this contradicts your own personal values and beliefs. Non-judgemental listening is about giving the speaker an opportunity to talk through their problems, it is not about telling them what to do or what not to do. Allow them the chance to work through the problem themselves in an accepting environment.
Don’t say you understand or tell the speaker about your experiences, as this can belittle and overshadow theirs. Don’t interrupt the speaker or finish their sentences, give them room to fully express how they feel or what they think. Don’t enter a conversation with expectations about what will be said, be open to what the speaker will reveal. This way you will create a more accepting environment and the speaker won’t feel as though they are saying the right or wrong things.
These skills play a fundamental role in allowing a person to be open and honest about what they are experiencing. Non-judgemental listening ensures that the speaker feels valued, respected and listened to. Being able to use these skills whilst listening to someone in distress is important as it helps to keep the listener safe before they can access professional help. Simply listening to someone experiencing mental health difficulties may help them through a crisis while waiting for professional help.