Why is non-judgemental listening so challenging?

Developing non-judgemental listening is helpful not only for MHFA but many areas of life

We might ‘hear’ but do we properly ‘listen’? To listen, to really listen, is a skill. We spend time being taught to speak, read and write, but are we ever taught to listen? In this article I have brought together some tips to help you become a better listener.


A key skill of Mental Health First Aid is listening, and specifically non-judgemental listening. Developing this can be one of the greatest learnings from the training, not just for MHFA but in many areas of life.

    Tips to improve our listening skills

    • Give someone your full, undivided attention. This means switch off or put away things that will distract you e.g. phone, email notifications.

    • Create a safe supportive space for someone to talk and understand for themselves what is going on.  Consider where you hold a conversation, giving privacy to protect confidentiality. Build rapport, for example through matching or mirroring body language, or making eye contact.

    • Make sure that you are fully present and are able to manage any personal discomfort about a topic.  It is not about you but sometimes topics can evoke emotions.

    • If someone is distressed, we can’t solve everything and we may not even understand it, but we can acknowledge that it is real for them.  Never downplay someone’s situation or emotion.

    • Check for congruence between what they say and how they say it.  We can all think of times when someone tells you they are fine but everything about them is indicating the opposite.

    • Ask open questions. As open as you can. This provides the arena for someone to choose how they respond.  One of my ‘go to’ questions is ‘what’s going on in your world at the moment?’ This gives them a choice about how they reply – events, emotions, concerns, etc.  You can pick up the conversation from there.

    • Use non-verbal prompts to support your listening. 

    • It can be helpful to summarise or paraphrase to check you have understood something.  Picking up on key words they have used demonstrates you have heard.

    • Check in on things you are unclear about, whilst being mindful of what you need to know.  Often a supportive conversation is more about feelings that facts. 

    The power of silence

    This is a very powerful listening tool and one we need to practice.

    • Take time to build rapport – that sense of connection with someone.  If you think of someone you are very comfortable with, you can be in silence with them for ages without it being uncomfortable.  Rapport enables this.

    • Silence shows respect by giving someone time to order their thoughts and formulate a response.  

    • It will not be silent in someone’s head.  If they can’t think of any response, giving them time will help one come into their awareness.  If nothing does, they will tell you.  

            The benefits of listening

            When we are supporting someone, we might think we know the answer to a situation, have some valuable advice, or can understand someone’s situation; but that is not what support is about. That approach is disabling not empowering.

            What we can do is to listen and question to gain the best possible understanding, to enable them to raise their own awareness, and work together to find the best way forward.

            Contact us for details

            If you would like to learn more about non-judgemental listening or raising awareness of mental health; or training to become a Mental Health First Aider, please get in touch.


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