Supporting Someone By Listening

January 24, 2020 , Written by Taylor Waters

Everybody wants to feel connected and understood. A natural way many of us do this is through commonality. Relating to past experiences helps us interpret the world around us. Albeit natural and normal, this can inhibit us from supporting those around us if we become too caught up in our desire to connect and relate, rather than actively listening.

So when someone opens up to us, it’s often our natural instinct to relate to the other person. “You bombed your test? Ugh I did too.” Relating our experiences to someone else's can make us feel as though we aren’t alone; that someone else feels the same and has been through the same thing. In other words, when we feel like someone relates to our situation, we feel understood by someone. But sometimes, our desire to be heard, to be understood, and to feel connected should be set aside for a moment, especially when someone is seeking for a supportive ear and validation (because the person we are with needs to be supported). Too often relating our experiences can overshadow the other person’s needs in that moment. During times where you are supporting someone, there may be instances where you really feel like you can relate to their story. Their story seems so similar to yours; their trauma may even seem like yours. However:

  • Relatability does not equal support.

No matter how much you think your experiences and feelings are similar, they are not equal. Everyone is different, and so everyone’s experience is unique as well. You may have been able to get through something difficult with ease, however this doesn’t mean that the other person can as well. There is often nothing more frustrating than someone telling you “I get it” when really, how could they? Though we can try our best to understand someone, this doesn’t necessarily translate into support. Instead, we can validate other people’s feelings by saying: “I’m sorry to hear this happened to you”, “thank you for sharing this with me”, or “I imagine how difficult this must be for you”.

When we are supporting someone, we are taking time to focus on their needs. Which leads me to my second point:

  • It’s not about you right now.

By choosing to focus on your needs, drawing away from your understanding and your connection with the person during these vulnerable moments, you can miss the opportunity to support someone and be fully present. By relating our experiences to the other person, and oversharing about our situation, we could make the situation no longer just about them, but about ourselves too. It’s so important that we take a step back sometimes and remember: Even though I can relate to this, this isn’t about me right now. Sometimes your job is simply to just be there and actively listen. The conversation doesn’t always have to be equally balanced. We all want to just be heard at times, especially when we are feeling vulnerable and/or hurt.

Be mindful next time you have the opportunity to support someone. Ask yourself:

“Am I making this about me?”

“Am I asking too many questions, talking too much, and focusing too much on my own desires and needs?”

“What does this person really need right now?”

Listening and being fully present can be difficult, but will enable you to support someone through their challenging experience. Sometimes by sharing our relatable experiences we could normalize the other persons feeling and reaffirm that they are not alone, however the focus when someone is sharing something painful and important with you is to attentively listen, offer empathy, and hopefully make them feel like they have someone to count on for support.


About the author: I'm Taylor, a fourth year Sociology student here at SFU, Community Advisor in Residence, and a volunteer for the ABN. As a feminist and a passionate social justice advocate, I am thankful to work with the ABN to help educate our campus. With team work, radical empathy and patience, we can change our world to become a safe place for everyone.