How Active Listening Helped Me Get “Unstuck”

Woman sitting by windowI am an anxious person by nature, a germaphobe stuck in a consistent state of nervousness. In late February, as news of COVID-19 swept the nation, my feelings of fear multiplied. Was I already exposed to the virus? Would I contract it? How can we fight something we know so little about? Fear quickly moved to panic and then to terror.

As I shared my growing concerns with my friends and family members, I was met with a variety of reactions.

“It will be okay.”

“You’re young and healthy. Don’t worry.”

“As long as you don’t travel to China or Italy, you’ll be fine.”

By Mid-March, the Governor of my hard-hit state had issued a stay-at-home order and a few weeks later, I was laid off from work for an undetermined amount of time. I was left with nothing to distract me and nothing to do but worry. As I talked with friends and family, I was given a lot of “helpful” advice.

“Well, at least you can quarantine in that new place of yours!”

“You really need to find a hobby to take your mind off things; take up gardening.”

“What books are you going to read? Now’s the best time for that.”

I knew that they were sincerely trying to comfort me, but their responses did nothing to calm my unease. In fact, in some situations, I actually grew more agitated because it was clear to me that they didn’t understand my reality. And they didn’t realize that it felt to me, like they were brushing my feelings aside.

The Gordon Model says that when you see someone is in the “I Own a Problem Area” of the Behavior Window, the best course of action is to avoid Roadblocks (like Reassuring, Encouraging, Using Humor, Advising and Questioning). If the appropriate conditions* are in place, we should use Active Listening (reflecting back a summary of the other person’s message—both the words and the emotions, using your own words).

Last week, I talked with another friend via video chat. I described how families in my neighborhood weren’t practicing social distancing and I was anxious to walk outside. I mentioned how I was having a hard time finding essential grocery and cleaning supplies. I told her that I couldn’t escape the thought that I might absentmindedly do something that would cause me to get the virus. She was silent, nodded her head to show me she was engaged, and said:

“Living in constant fear must be exhausting for you! I’m so sorry.”

And I cried. Because I hadn’t realized it until that moment. I was exhausted. But somehow, it felt like a small part of the heavy weight had been lifted. I didn’t walk away from the conversation with solutions. Instead, I had gained deeper insight into my problem and I was more open to the next step. And more importantly, I felt understood for the first time in weeks.

Check yourself. When others vent to you, are you listening and reflecting back their messages? Or are you perhaps blocking them with your own messages instead? You are not expected to serve as a mental health professional, but you can be a loving and caring sounding board.


*If you believe the person needs more urgent or serious help than an empathetic ear, encourage him or her to seek the help of a qualified mental health professional right away.

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