Listening without judgment is a key step in the Mental Health First Aid action plan and it sounds deceptively simple to do. And yet being able to truly hear what someone needs to share, in the way they need to say it and without fear of judgement - in a moment of crisis or a casual conversation – well, it can make all the difference in creating a safe space for them. And yet … it’s not easy.
About 15 years ago, I had an “aha” moment. I realized that I had a tendency to judge people who were close to me, in much the same way as I was raised. And here’s the thing, none of it was coming from a bad place. It was all because I cared about the people around me and was concerned for them or wanted the best for them, just like my family wanted for me. I thought I was helping them to see that there was a different, healthier, or “better” way to handle their situation. But what that sounded like was “you should”…even if those exact words weren’t said. And what it looked like was people starting to pull away from me when they may have most needed someone to talk to.
When we are able to listen without judgment, it doesn’t mean we are in agreement with what the other person is saying or that we don’t have some kind of an opinion, but it does send a message that their thoughts and feelings have value; that they matter. It communicates we are a safe person for them to come to - which can be especially important if they are experiencing a mental health challenge.
And it can be challenging.
A family member recently reached out to me during a difficult time and wanted to talk. So, being the seasoned Mental Health First Aider, I put on my MHFA hat (figuratively speaking of course!), prepared for the conversation by being extra aware of my body language and reactive facial expressions I am prone to, and we met. I was feeling good about my listening skills, my supportive and reassuring responses (meaning I was getting a little too confident!) and then this family member shared a little side comment about a financial issue (a topic that causes concern for me). Without even realizing it I let out a disapproving groan and I’m sure my eyebrows probably raised up past my hairline! Ugh! Gratefully, she called me on my response, thankfully accepted my apology and we were able to continue with the conversation.
So, “Listening Non-Judgmentally” is an important way that a Mental Health First Aider can create a safe space for someone who may be experiencing a mental health challenge. Sometimes we do this better than at other times, but it’s worth it to keep working at it.