Let’s talk student wellbeing.
In their 2021 report on Student Mental Health, UCAS estimated that ‘74,000 students with an existing mental health condition entered HE in 2020, with just under half choosing not to share this information with their university or college’. The Office for Students (OFS) has reported that ‘students with mental health conditions tend to have lower rates of continuation, attainment and progression into skilled work…’. Whilst it’s clear that more and more students feel comfortable discussing their mental health, we still have a long way to go to make these conversations easier to have.
Why is listening so hard?
We’ve all been there before. Sat across from someone, wondering when we zoned out, trying to work out what we’ve missed while deciding what to have for dinner. Considering the average person-of-hearing hears between 20,000 to 30,000 words in a 24-hour period, listening is harder than you may think and here’s why.
One of the main barriers to active listening is noise. That may be physical noise from your surroundings, psychological noise from your own thoughts or physiological noise such as feeling cold, or tired, or hungry. All these factors can affect your ability to focus and listen.
Recognising your bias.
It can also be difficult to disengage from our own biases towards the speaker, and the topic. Often subconscious, these biases have become ingrained over years and years and across multiple touch points. We may or may not even realise we hold them. But they do exist. And can make it hard to listen to differing perspectives or opinions.
We are all unique individuals with many different factors and facets which have influenced the people we have become today. Some people find it easier to make their voice heard in a conversation than others. They may be more confident, have a more dominant presence, their voice may be stronger in tone and volume. Others may find their voice often gets over spoken. They may find it hard to interject. They may not be able to read the usual cues regarding turn-taking in conversation.
This inevitable imbalance in conversational status can make it difficult for an open exchange of thoughts and opinions to take place. One reason why active listening is such a powerful tool in empowering people from all backgrounds to speak up.
Promote student wellbeing with active listening.
Active listening can improve the way you communicate with others, helping you to develop your academic, professional and personal relationships. That lecture, that presentation, that client meeting or even that first date. But more importantly, by practicing active listening, we can improve the way people talk about their mental and emotional wellbeing. Providing a ‘safe space’, which encourages open conversation might make the difference to someone who isn’t feeling ‘fine’ but maybe struggling to feel heard.
We need to make it easier for students to discuss their mental health and reach their full potential.
How to practice Active Listening
1. Pay Attention
This is where your mindfulness skills come into play. Show the speaker that they have your full attention. Avoid distractions such as checking your phone or watching the clock or interrupting and talking over them. Give them the airtime they need.
2. Ask Questions
Conversation is a two-way thing. In fact, if you were to sit completely in silence, that might give the impression that you haven’t been paying attention. Asking questions shows the speaker that you are interested in what they have to say and can encourage them. But try to look for cues that it’s OK to step in, like a natural pause in their flow, or if they take a sip of their drink.
3. Verbal and Nonverbal cues
Show the speaker that you are actively listening through positive affirmations to encourage them to keep going — but don’t overdo it. You’re not trying to give the impression that you agree with the speaker, just that you are listening to their point of view. This doesn’t have to be limited to verbal cues, you can use body language such as a gentle nod of the head, hand gestures and facial expressions.
When the time is right — when there is a break in the conversation, paraphrase what the speaker has said to you to make sure you have fully understood them but also to show them that you have been listening to them.
If you pay attention, empathise and ask questions, you will be better placed to respond when your turn comes. Remember, you don’t have to agree. The aim is to listen, acknowledge and respect someone else’s point of view, make them feel heard and to encourage more open and heartfelt conversations.
With a never-ending stream of information and distractions at our fingertips, our brains have become wired to jump from one thing to the next, to multi-task and to always feel ‘available’. It’s time to switch off the distractions, so we can switch on to active listening.
You don’t have to be qualified to be a good listener and you can make a difference to the lives of the people around you by knocking down the barriers to discussion about mental and emotional health. Rest assured that the Student Shield counselling team is available 24/7 to provide the practical and emotional support you may need during student life.