Often, it’s professional mental health workers and counsellors who are trained in the key principles of non-judgemental listening. More recently, Mental Health First Aiders have been receiving training in this area too, but it’s actually becoming increasingly important that all of us have knowledge in how to listen without judgement.
Awareness of non-judgemental listening could come into play if we’re faced with a critical situation where someone needs support (e.g talking down suicidal thoughts), as well as during everyday conversations where people may not be feeling well emotionally.
Non judgemental listening is powerful, and can be the difference between an escalation of mental ill-health and a person receiving life-changing support. Below we use 6 steps approved by the MHFA to teach you how you can practice your own non-judgemental listening.
What is non-judgemental listening?
Non-judgemental listening is the practice of listening without judgement and being able to separate our own feelings on a subject when we are listening.
Internally, we all come with what’s called our Frame of Reference. Our Frame of Reference is a term coined by Aaron and Jacqui Schiff and it refers to the way each of us filters our reality. Our frame of reference is made up of a number of different factors like education, life experiences and our beliefs.
Without even knowing it, our Frame of Reference is what influences our judgment of the world around us, and when we’re faced with a situation that is contrary to our Frame of Reference, we can find it difficult to hold our judgment and stop our own views and beliefs from emerging.
Overcoming our Frame of Reference is key to listening non judgmentally, and there are 3 ingredients we can use to ensure that we are doing our best to minimise it and focus solely – and openly – on the other person.
The Core Ingredients:
For a speaker to be able to talk openly there are three conditions that a listener must meet to form a safe environment. Without these, the speaker may not feel comfortable enough to be able to talk freely or fully.
Related: If you’re worried about a situation, cross reference some of the early warning signs of declining mental health here.
The conditions that must be met are:
- Acceptance: Acceptance is the hardest part of minimising our Frame of Reference. The speaker may have views and experiences that vary wildly from ours, and we must accept, respect and understand those.
- Empathy: To empathise, we must understand another person’s experience by hearing what the person is saying without inserting our own experience into the position. The best way to empathise is to imagine ourselves in the person’s situation, so that we can objectively understand the speaker’s circumstances.
- Genuineness: Presenting an air of genuineness is achieved nonverbally by ensuring that our body language matches what we say to the speaker. If we claim to understand, but our body language is cold and closed, it presents a conflicting message and doesn’t convey non-judgemental listening.
What benefits does non-judgemental listening bring?
Non-judgemental listening takes time and practice to learn because we are naturally hardwired to view the world within our Frame of Reference. However, getting non-judgemental listening right provides a host of benefits when trying to help and understand others. They are:
- Being fully able to understand others without being distracted or influenced by our experiences and subconscious thoughts.
- Allowing for the creation of a safe space where a speaker is likely to feel comfortable enough to speak openly.
- Offering the speaker an opportunity to work through and understand both their thoughts and feelings relating to their situation in a safe environment.
- Non-judgemental and empathetic listening can have a positive effect on a speaker’s mental health – something vitally important that can lead to a person receiving the right support.
How do you practice non-judgemental listening?
Practicing non-judgemental listening can take time and practice. Below are 6 steps to help you begin to practice listening without judgement or interruption.
- Assess your state of mind
Before being ready to listen to someone, it’s important to check whether you yourself are in the right frame of mind. Sometimes if something is bothering us, or if we have had recent negative experiences, it can affect the way we listen to other people.
Make sure that you are calm, open and ready to listen to whatever may come your way.
Related: If keeping a positive mindset is something you struggle with, try using our tips to help you maintain a more positive outlook.
- Check you are presenting the right attitude
The right attitude for listening empathetically is one that draws upon all of the criteria for non-judgemental listening: Acceptance, genuineness and empathy.
By adopting an attitude that is accepting you will automatically accept and respect the speaker’s feelings, experiences and values as valid. This allows you to then envision yourself in the speaker’s situation, which automatically leads to you being more genuine and subsequently, empathetic.
- Use verbal listening skills
Small and simple verbal cues are skills which can help you to display to another person that you’re listening, without needing to interrupt them.
Things like asking pertinent questions to clarify your understanding, using prompts such as “yes” and “I see”, listening to tone of voice, allowing time for a person to consider before continuing and summarising what a person has said and repeating it back are all fantastic verbal listening skills that can harness a connection. These all display to a speaker that you are attentive, engaged and listening to what they have to say.
- Use non-verbal listening skills
Non-verbal listening skills can also outwardly display that you are engaged, listening and not passing judgement.
The key to non-verbal listening is entirely in our body language. Positive body language communicates to another person that we are listening.
Positive body language cues can include using a comfortable amount of eye contact; sitting down instead of standing up; allowing each person to have adequate space, and sitting at an angle instead of directly opposite. Maintaining an open body posture – for example not crossing your arms, which can come across as standoffish – is also just as important to display openness and acceptance.
In addition, small prompts such as nodding your head can also communicate to the speaker that you are listening, and natural comfortable silences and supportive spaces can allow the speaker time to reflect.
- Empathise with, but don’t minimise, the speaker
Overshadowing the speaker through regular interruptions, finishing their sentences, using throwaway comments or talking over the speaker with your own experiences can minimise what a person is trying to tell you and may not provide the safe environment needed to fully allow for open communication.
Create an accepting environment by not entering a conversation with expectations about what a speaker might reveal and how you may react to those. Instead, go in open minded and provide room for the speaker to listen. Withhold your own experiences and thoughts until relevant points where you can empathise with the speaker in the sharing of appropriate experiences.
- Respect cultural differences
Finally, be aware of cultural differences when preparing to listen non-judgmentally to someone whose ethnicity or cultural experience may differ from yours. Across different cultures, certain verbal and non-verbal behaviours – such as eye contact levels and personal space – can communicate different things. To ensure you are communicating effectively you could ask the speaker what is appropriate and comfortable for them.
Hone your non-judgemental listening: become a Mental Health First Aider
As part of Mental Health First Aid courses, Mental Health First Aiders receive training in how to listen and communicate non-judgmentally. In both workplace and social settings, these skills can provide someone with a safe space to talk, and be signposted to correct resources which could greatly benefit their mental health.