Wednesday 31 January 2024

Listen Very Carefully (But I'll Say It More than Once)

Falling this year on February 1, Time to Talk Day is dedicated to countering the stigma surrounding mental health. Last year, I discussed some of the reasons we might not want to talk about how we’re feeling. This time, I want to explore something that’s rarely discussed in the context of conversations about mental health: repetition. UK readers of a certain age may recall a catchphrase from the sitcom ’Allo ’Allo!, which ran from 1982 to 1992: “Listen very carefully. I shall say this only once.” Sometimes, though, our message isn’t fully received at the first attempt. Being prepared to say things more than once can make all the difference.

These thoughts were inspired by a recent video call with my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson, who blogs at I’m NOT Disordered. We were talking about her experiences with the crisis team, specifically the initial conversation with the person who answers the phone. At times, these conversations have not gone well and we discussed how this might put people off seeking help. We talked about the training call handlers and crisis line staff receive and how important it is that they don’t exacerbate the distress someone’s in when they’ve mustered the courage to reach out. Aimee has generally had very good support from the nurses and other staff once they call her back. I suggested that if she needs their services again, she tells herself she just needs to get through the five minutes it will take for that initial conversation with the call handler, because once her details are logged and someone phones back, she’s very likely to get the care and support she needs. Aimee seemed to agree, and we continued talking about other things.

As we neared the end of our call, I wanted to remind Aimee about my suggestion, but I didn’t want to annoy her by implying she’d not been paying attention. I said something to that effect, and Aimee replied it was fine, go ahead. I repeated my idea and was glad I did. Although she’d heard me the first time, Aimee had thought I was talking generally and hadn’t realised how useful it could be to her personally. Thinking about our conversation afterwards, I realised there’s a more general point to be made about communicating effectively.

When you think about it, it’s amazing we manage to communicate anything to anyone, when all we have are the sounds we utter or the marks we make on paper or screen. Not only that, but each of us has our own set of values, hang-ups, and experiences. We’re scarcely aware of these in ourselves, let alone the people we’re talking to. We nevertheless assume our message has been received accurately by the person we’re communicating with, and that we’ve understood what they meant. In practice, there may be many reasons why this doesn’t happen.

We or the other person might have difficulty hearing, either because of a hearing impairment, or background noise. We might not be equally familiar with the language we’re using. There could be social or cultural differences, or problems understanding each other’s accent or dialect. We may be distracted by other things that are happening in our lives, or by what’s going on around us at the time. A funny example of distraction happened on a later video call with Aimee. At one point she didn’t seen to be paying attention to what I was saying. It turned out her adorable cat Ruby was just off camera, trying to steal food from Aimee’s bowl! We might find it hard to focus due to tiredness, pain, or issues such as depression, dissociation, or brain fog. We may process words and ideas differently. We might simply lose track of what’s being said, get bored, or find ourselves daydreaming. Text-based conversations such as online chat, text (SMS) messages, or emails have their own issues. For example, can be difficult to convey the feelings behind our words when all we have is text on a screen. For all these reasons and more, what we want to say may not make the journey unchanged, or at all.

It’s equally useful to confirm we’ve understood the other person correctly, especially if what they’re sharing is outside our personal experience. Not getting the message first time isn’t a problem, but continuing in error might be. Checking in allows you both to explore any areas of misunderstanding. Something as simple as “Can I just check I understand what you mean?” or “What I’m hearing is ...” allows you to confirm you’re on the same page.

A degree of common sense is important. It would be tedious to repeat everything that’s said just to be certain nothing was missed or misinterpreted. Nor does anyone like to feel they might not be paying attention or are unable to follow along. We can reasonably assume that most of what we say is being received more or less as we intended. But where there’s a hint of doubt or where the message is especially important, take a moment to clarify. Proceeding on the basis of a misunderstanding can cause more trouble further down the line.

Another aspect of repetition is highlighted by the “Ask Twice” campaign. As Molly Tanners reports in this blog post for the charity Step One, “Research released by Time to Change reveals that, when asked, over three quarters (78%) of us would tell friends and family we are ‘fine’ even if struggling with a mental health problem.” Asking again, and not just taking that “fine” at face value shows we’re genuinely interested. It also gives the other person permission to be more honest about what’s going on for them, if they wish to be. I know this from personal experience, as someone who’s much more likely to reply “fine” or “not too bad” first time round. I’m reminded of a brilliant stand-up routine by comedian and actor Bill Bailey, in which he relates the particularly British relationship to happiness.

Our happiness is based on this premise. Things could have been a lot worse. That’s as good as it gets in Britain. That’s why the standard greeting in Britain is:

“How are you?”

“Not too bad.”

That’s as good as it gets in old Blighty. Not too bad. Things are clearly bad, but not quite as bad as we thought they were going to be. We’ve dialled down our expectation to an acceptable level of disappointment.

My outlook isn’t quite that bleak, but I am mistrustful of happiness. Okay. Fine. Not too bad. That’s what you’ll probably get from me if you ask how I am. Ask again, though, and I might open up a little more.

In this post I’ve discussed some of the reasons we might not always get what someone’ saying first time around. Keeping this in mind allows us to be more patient if we don’t understand straightaway, or if our message doesn’t seem to be getting across. Taking a moment to check in can go a long way towards resolving any doubt or misunderstanding. Remember also not to take someone’s words at face value if there might be more going on beneath the surface. Sensitively repeating what we’ve said, or asking again, can make all the difference.


Photo by Sandy Millar at Unsplash.


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