Tuesday, July 25, 2006

How to be a Good Listener for Someone with Agoraphobia

(This post appeared in the 'Agoraphobia Newsletter' on July 18, 2006).

Being a good listener is an important quality in being a good support person for someone with agoraphobia. Being a good listener makes you someone a person with agoraphobia can share his or her feelings with. This is important because much of the anxiety someone with agoraphobia experiences could be coming from holding feelings in and not expressing them.

As someone who has suffered from agoraphobia, I can tell you that one of the reasons people with agoraphobia (or anyone else for that matter) don't share their feelings with others is because most people are not good listeners and will just hurt your feelings even worse by not really listening or not validating them.

Most people just try to fix you by pointing out what is irrational or wrong with your feelings. If you have agoraphobia, this just makes you feel stupid and/or misunderstood.

Probably the most crucial element to being a good listener for someone with agoraphobia or an anxiety disorder is being able to hear and validate someone's feelings or emotions by making reflective statements to let the person know that you heard and understood.

For example, if a someone with agoraphobia talks about being afraid of having a panic attack and being embarrassed when going out on a date, the best response would be: "It sounds like you are really scared."

This lets the person with agoraphobia know that you heard his or her feelings and invites the person to share more. Some bad responses that indicate you are not really listening to a persons feelings (and responses the average person would give) are:

"If you weren't so worried about having a panic attack, you probably wouldn't have one."

"Maybe you won't have a panic attack and there's nothing to worry about."

These responses let person know that you think its silly to be worried about having a panic attack. They do not let the person know you have heard his or her feelings.

Hearing and making reflective statements about feelings is part of a skill called active listening. Active listening is a way of listening to people that lets them know you care about them and are really hearing them. Since many people with agoraphobia say that what they need most in a support person is someone who will listen to them, here are some guidelines for active listening:

Be attentive. You have to make an effort to listen carefully. Don't daydream and don't talk.

Think about the main point the speaker is trying to make. Also, don't be thinking about what you are going to say the whole time the other person is talking.

Make reflective statements by paraphrasing or restating in your own words what the speaker is saying. Especially when the person shares a feeling (fear, anger, sadness, regret, guilt, etc.) Good phrases to use when making reflective statements are: "What I hear you saying is....." "It sounds like......" "So in other words....."

Try to leave your own emotion out when you're listening.

Try not to argue back in your mind.

These things detract from what the speaker is saying. In other words, be objective and try not to let your own judgments and biases cloud what you are hearing the person say. Try to really see things from the other person's perspective and wait to hear the whole message before forming a response.

Ask for clarification if you don't understand a point the speaker is making. Ask questions to invite the person to elaborate on points that seem important.

Avoid distractions. Sit close to the speaker, if possible. Be aware of more than just the person's words. Look for body language, gestures, tone of voice, posture, etc. See if you think the person's non-verbal communication is congruent with what he or she is saying. (For example - some people smile when they are telling you they are upset). If the person's words and body language don't match, ask for clarification about what the person is really feeling but be gentle about pointing out the discrepancy.

When you do offer feedback, try to do so honestly but without passing judgment or expressing approval or disapproval of the person.

As you can see, good active listening is more than just not saying anything and nodding. Good listening is a skill that may take some work to develop if you don't come by it naturally. However, developing good active listening skills will make you a good support person for your friend or loved one with agoraphobia. Plus - being a good listener will help you in your other relationships, too, even with people who don't have agoraphobia.

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