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The power of conversation

Cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist, Andy Thornton, shares why a simple conversation can be so powerful – and how really listening to someone can help them when they need it most.

The power of conversation

I spend a lot of my time in conversation with people and listening to their stories. I’m a therapist so, although it’s my job, it’s probably the part of the job that I love the most. When someone really opens up to me, a complete stranger, perhaps about something they’ve never shared before, I feel extremely privileged.

I have also spent time volunteering for the Samaritans helpline which, to me, is the ultimate ‘listening service’. Being a Samaritan is all about giving people the opportunity to talk safely, without fear of judgement, or someone trying to ‘fix’ them. So often, the people I spoke to weren’t looking for answers or advice; they simply needed to talk and be listened to.

The benefits

When someone feels safe enough to talk openly, a few things can happen:

  • Their self-awareness grows
  • It can help them understand the real issues that are affecting their life
  • Deep emotions can be released, possibly taking them (and the person listening) by surprise
  • New approaches or solutions to issues can emerge

I have had thousands of conversations with all kinds of different people. They have all been dealing with their own issues, ranging from being actively suicidal to struggling with relationships or going through bereavement. While I don’t believe that any one approach can be ‘the’ solution for every single person, there is no doubt that talking – and listening – is incredibly powerful.

I believe that conversation can change lives. Yet in our hyper-connected age, we’re discovering many people find it difficult to have ‘real’ conversations. People may have lots of connections or followers online yet still find themselves without a friend they can talk to about the things that really matter. It’s then the absence of meaningful conversation which can result in bottling up emotions or feelings of overwhelm and despair.

So, what makes a good conversation?

In my experience there are a number of things that contribute to a good conversation. This isn’t an exhaustive list, it’s just the things that I find important.

Permission to talk

Firstly, there is the simple act of giving someone permission to talk. This doesn’t mean verbal permission but letting them know through your attitude and body language that you are there for them – and that it’s OK for them to say whatever they need to.

Making it safe

For someone to feel comfortable enough to talk freely, they need to know that they are in a safe space. They need to feel that they can speak, without judgment, and trust you.

Building a strong relationship

Establishing rapport, bringing compassion and empathy, and being genuinely interested are just some of the foundations for building a positive relationship. A strong relationship will mean it’s possible to ask questions, challenge ways of thinking or simply be a sounding board for someone.

Be a guide

People can skirt around the things they want to say, and you find them talking about anything and everybody but themselves. Recognising this is happening can be extremely helpful especially as people don’t always realise what they are doing. I find there is a need to gently guide people back to themselves, drawing them into a space in which they have some control, and where the real issues most often lie.

Listen, really listen

When you really listen to someone you hear what they are saying, you are aware of their mannerisms, the pace of their speech, their tone of voice. You really, truly hear them. It’s not just the power of conversation but the power of being heard that can really make a difference.

I’m scared I won’t know what to say

Opening yourself up to a conversation with someone who is in need can be incredibly rewarding but it can also be pretty scary. I know that for many people the idea having a conversation without any idea of what might happen can feel intimidating. What if I don’t know what to say? What if they start to cry?

Accepting someone’s emotions as they arise is something that really helps. Telling them that it’s OK to cry, it’s OK to be emotional about their experiences, is really important. They don’t need to keep their emotions locked away.

You also don’t have to have all, or any, answers so you don’t need to be afraid of somehow failing. Most of the time people will come to their own solutions as they talk and their situation becomes clearer.

A reminder to look after yourself

As a conversation unfolds it’s vital to recognise your reaction, too. If something triggers you, it’s always a good idea for you to sit down afterwards with a trusted friend and discuss those feelings in a way that does not break any confidences, but that allows you to explore how you felt. You’re a person, too, remember.

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