Active Listening to Improve... Everything


How often do you listen to the woes of a friend of family member, and do only that: just listen? While many of us want to try to offer a solution and help solve problems for others, active listening may just be the biggest gift you can offer to someone else.

Enter the Crisis Text Line, a free text service that offers exactly this: active listening. The service operates 24/7 for anyone who is experiencing any type of crisis and texting from anywhere in the United States. A live, trained crisis counselor responds quickly; a trained volunteer counselor helps the person move from a time of more difficulty, to that requiring a less immediate response. While it does not actually provide therapy, the volunteers or staff practice active listening by communicating empathy, understanding, and respectful support to anyone who texts in with a problem. The trained staff place their focus on the texters' thoughts and concerns, and provide thoughtful answers and responses.

Hoping to provide a familiar setting for texters, it looks similar to other social media sites that are frequently used by those who prefer to text rather than call or speak with others face-to-face. The advantages for this type of system are many: volunteers can work from any location in the world that has wifi and, for those who text needing help, writing in an anonymous forum allows those individuals to speak their situations and worries without having to hear their words actually spoken out loud. Plus, those texting in don't have to worry about anyone knowing they're crying, what they look like, or even their gender or sexual orientation.

This non-profit company has used data from interactions to determine what might be classified as a good idea vs. a bad one.

Good ideas include:

  • Responding to vague incoming messages with open-ended responses looking for greater specificity
  • Responding to specific messages by echoing the texter's language and trying to get more details
  • Using open-ended questions
  • Offering validation (What a tough situation.)
  • Employing tentafiers (Do you mind if I ask you...?)
  • Using strength identification (You're a great brother to...)
  • Offering empathetic responses
  • Using statements couched in the 1st person (I'm worried about how upset you are.)

Ideas to avoid include:

  • Asking WHY questions
  • Making assumptions about a texter's gender or sexual orientation
  • Sounding like a robot
  • Trying to talk like a teen

As expected, the Crisis Text Line has a comprehensive training program with experienced professionals offering assistance in many circumstances; therefore, the warning of "DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME" might be appropriate for someone ready to run out and solve the world's problems. But, these suggestions could easily be used as a guideline for a parent, spouse, or friend when approached by someone experiencing a difficult situation.

As a teacher and former principal, I know I often felt people were coming to me for answers: What should I do about this? How do I handle that?

What I feel sure I forgot, or simply didn't realize, is that sometimes the greatest gift a person can give is a pair of ears.

So now, my goal, when physically present with a person, is maintaining eye contact, nodding, and remaining focused on them alone. And, whether I'm with that other person or not, listening...just listening. Without judgment or advice, just listening.

Hmmmm, this is something I think I'll need to keep working on for a while.

Follow Dr. Wolbe on her website, Facebook, or LinkedIn.


If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.