Practising listening for healthy relationships


Article first published in Cornwall Today as ‘Take time to listen this Valentine’s Day’

February 7th is Time to Talk Day, but perhaps what we really need to do is listen. 

Led by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, Time to Talk encourages us to talk about mental health. 

Mental Health. A term that only seems to come up when we’re talking with grave faces and hushed voices about illnesses that border on the taboo, which is ridiculous when you think about how much we talk and even laugh about our propensity to catch colds or get physically injured. We all have minds and they are all vulnerable. Just like any other bodily part, system or organ, our minds need to be looked after and will suffer from neglect or threat.

Time to Talk’s aim is to end mental health discrimination by inspiring everyone to talk about their minds freely, not just when something is wrong. This is an important message: organising our thoughts and feelings into words and releasing them into a safe space is fundamental to preserving a healthy mind; it’s also crucial for our recovery when things do go wrong. Because talk involves trust, effort and empathy it can improve relationships and liberate others, helping to erode the enduring stigmas and stereotypes that blight mental health.

But it’s important to recognise the stumbling block to much healing talk: it only works if someone is listening. If we don’t feel we’ll be heard, we won’t bother to speak, and if we feel like a burden we won’t share our worries.

Right now, neither talking nor listening is easy. Smartphones help us reply, respond, interrupt and have the last say around-the-clock, so we have to remind ourselves what undivided attention looks and feels like. Some of us may never have learned. 

At Lifetime we provide opportunities to talk in confidence. Listening isn’t as easy as we assume and Lifetime’s counsellors have all been trained to help groups, couples, families and individuals to talk in a way that nurtures change and growth. 

Ultimately, we all have a choice between the fleeting discomfort of speaking, or the ongoing discomfort of keeping things in. To show that you want to support someone in breaking free from that discomfort, you can offer a little back, describing what they tell you without judgement. This sort of listening is listening to hear, rather than to reply, and it’s a potentially life-changing distinction. 

A week after Time to Talk Day is Valentine’s Day, and what better way to show love than to listen? No interruptions, no “Oh yeah, that happened to me…”, just listening. Valentine’s Day can be painful, whether you’re in a relationship or not, and encouraging people you care about to talk can give a dreaded wintery day a much-needed shift in perspective or beam of light.

Malachy Dunne

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