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Walk & Talk (and listen)

Our musing for this week is related to how we listen to others. When we refer to our walk and talk being simple, we are, of course, being a little ironic; in reality, if life was this simple, then hosting walk and talk groups would not be necessary!

Walking can be straightforward, but it's crucial to recognise that it's not universally accessible for everyone. We must remain mindful that the ability to walk can be a presumption that encompasses various aspects of an individual's life. However, delving into this topic requires its own separate discussion. Today, we are looking at talking and, more importantly, what we really mean, in a therapeutic sense, is our ability to listen.

Talking works so effectively because it taps into one of our inherent abilities for self-care. As social beings, humans naturally seek to connect with one another by expressing our desires, wants, needs, and emotions through communication. Although discussions about psychological health and the broader term' mental health' have gained momentum in today's on-line world, humans have been self-healing through communication since before writing developed. Stories, legends and parables provided connection and a therapeutic effect through the act of sharing and connection.

But, I hear you say, if this is such a natural human capacity, then why do we struggle talking about our emotions? This is where the role of the listener enters.

However, before we dive deeper, we must address the 'elephant in the room': social media. A quick glance at any social media platform will reveal that sharing appears to be fine in today's digital age. In fact, people are sharing every aspect of their lives, from emotions and thoughts to relationships and secret desires. Sharing has become a multi-billion dollar industry, where the more personal and intimate your sharing is, the more fame and income it can generate. Sharing has taken on a quasi-cult status in today's society.

Undoubtedly, sharing has played a role in normalising discussions around psychological health in our society and as discussed in our article Why do men not seek support? continues to challenge stigma. However, if the proliferation of oversharing were the solution, we would have witnessed a corresponding improvement in psychological wellbeing. Furthermore, research is now indicating that awareness rather than missing in society, is starting to become a contributor to conflating normal life stressors with psychological illness, over interpretation and self diagnosis.

The disinhibition effect afforded by the on-line world is well documented and continues to be studied, but also important is the one-way, self-broadcasting nature of on-line. Except for some chat functions, which offer a level of real-time communication, social media mainly involves, at best, asynchronous communication. One key observation regarding this form of sharing is the absence of an active listener. It's like shouting into the darkness, an outlet akin to venting. While attracting an audience, likes, and comments may offer some semblance of attention, it doesn't provide the therapeutic value of a genuine listener.

A note on chat functions: these can and are used to great effect to provide on-line support, and organisations such as My Black Dog and C.A.L.M provide specialist-trained support workers to offer a virtual 'listening ear' on-line.

Now let's return to listening. When we refer to listening in a therapeutic or supporting sense, we are talking about non-passive or what has become known as Active and Empathetic Listening.

Active Listening is a term first referred to in the mid-1950s by Carl Rogers and Richard Farson and has since been adopted beyond psychotherapy into coaching, leadership and management theory. In its most simplistic form, active listening is moving beyond just hearing utterances or words; and to do this, we can not just be a 'passive' audience.

Active is being fully aware of the speaker's tone of voice, body language, timing, hesitations and context. Furthermore, active listening entails more than just understanding. We are required to show understanding. Communication is not one-way. It is a process between two individuals which requires the active participation of both.

It may be helpful to look at what showing understanding is not:

  • judging

  • humouring

  • telling

  • probing

  • preaching

  • advising

  • blaming

  • shaming

These examples, and there are probably many more, do not offer understanding they interrupt. The listener is, in effect, saying, 'Stop, now listen to what I think, or I know what's best, or let me fix it, or it is not that bad; now listen to what happened to me'.

These responses are often natural and understandable, especially when discussing distressing or upsetting issues. Our natural reaction may be to want to stop, minimise or fix. However, therapeutic or supportive relationships require an egalitarian or non-hierarchical approach. Collaboration and guidance are preferred rather than leading or fixing. For this, the listener needs to suspend control and allow themselves to be vulnerable. This is where empathy is added to the role of the supportive listener.

Empathetic Listening is, in simple terms, accepting the speaker's emotions without judgment or bias. Relinquishing control can be difficult, and empathetic listening requires the listener to accept vulnerability; the listener is required to accept the speaker's distress and upset. However, this vulnerability fosters trust; it enables the listener to show understanding without falling into one of the 'stop' traps mentioned above.

One simple approach is to avoid closed questions, those that can be answered as a yes or no or give the impression of judgment. Ideally we should use open questions that begin with how, what, where, and when.

Empathy can be fostered by 'lived experience', but the peer support worker should not assume they know exactly what the other person is feeling. Authentic empathy enables peer support workers to provide meaningful support, know when to respond, and when just listening is required. All Space to Talk facilitators and peer support leads have a level of lived experience, but this does not mean that all people with lived experience are suitable for these roles.

At Space to Talk, we firmly believe that effective walk-and-talk support is provided when the group facilitator or peer support lead has the adequate knowledge, training and experience to provide active and empathetic listening, safely without risk of harm to the client or themselves.

In conclusion, talking is important, but talking is not a solo activity. To talk, we need someone to listen and that listener needs to be more than just an audience. When we use the term Walk and Talk, the unsaid assumption is that we are offering to listen. We also recognise that listening is not easy; it is a skill requiring, empathy, knowledge, training and experience. It may seem that Walk & Talk is just this, a group of people going for a walk and a chat and in reality, this is also fine and, in its broadest sense, is wellbeing. However, for Space to Talk, our term Walk & Talk is best described as Walk & Talk & Listen!


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