Talking about death – how to be a good listener

It’s Dying Matters Awareness Week, a national initiative committed to helping people talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement, and to make plans for the end of life.

This year’s theme is ‘Dying to be Heard’ which focuses on how we respond when someone wants to discuss death, grief, or their will or funeral plans with us.

This is especially important, given the current pandemic. People close to you may feel they want to get their affairs in order and to plan for the worst. Often, once they’ve done this, they feel less scared and more prepared.

One of the ways we can help someone who wants to talk about death or dying, is to listen actively. This isn’t always easy and some people are naturally better than others; often we shy away from difficult subjects. Sometimes we don’t want to acknowledge that a loved one may die one day, and not engaging in a conversation is a form of denial. It can also bring up difficult feelings related to personal grief or memories. Also, daily pressures and demands often dominate our thoughts, leaving limited time and energy to focus on listening.

However, listening to a loved one when they want and need to talk about these things is one of the greatest gifts we can give. When someone reaches out to you, you need to be able to support them and help them as much as you can. We should all place greater importance on active listening as it shows respect, helps build relationships and avoids wasting time due to misunderstandings or misplaced assumptions.  The trick is to use active listening skills to be ready whenever such moments occur. It’s a valuable technique that requires the listener to thoroughly absorb, understand, respond, and retain what is being said.

Here are a few tips to help you hone your active listening skills:

Make eye contact

Eye contact is an important part of face to face conversation. Too much eye contact can be intimidating though, so adapt this to the situation you’re in. Try breaking eye contact every five seconds or so, or to show you’re listening attentively, look at one eye for five seconds, then another eye for five seconds, then switch to looking at their mouth. When you look away, looking to the side or up is better than looking down, which can seem like you want to close the conversation.

Check body language

Check your posture and make sure it’s open – avoid crossed arms or crossed legs, which can make you look ‘closed’ or defensive. Leaning slightly forward or sideways whilst sitting can show that you’re listening – as can a slight tilt of your head or resting your head on your hand.

Also, ‘listen’ to the non-verbal as well as verbal signals from the person you’re listening to. In addition to the words themselves, a key part of any message is the non-verbal signals you receive from the speaker. Pay attention to their posture, eye contact and gestures to get a deeper understanding of the message they are trying to convey.

 Pay attention

Show that you’re listening. Nod your head, smile and make small noises like “yes” and “uh huh”, to show that you’re listening and encourage the speaker to continue. Don’t look at your watch, fidget or play with your hair or fingernails.

Avoid the temptation to interject or interrupt – let the other person finish before jumping in with questions or giving your own version of events. Silence is a powerful tool so use it well and don’t necessarily try to fill it.

The renowned American psychiatrist, M Scott Peck said that true listening requires a setting aside of oneself.

Ask Open Questions

Instead of asking “yes” or “no” questions, try to keep them open ended. For example, use, what, where, when, how… For example, instead of asking “Have you felt like this for a long time?” ask “how long have you felt like this?”

 Withhold judgment

If you start reacting emotionally to what’s being said, then it can get in the way of listening to what is said next. Try to focus on listening. Equally, don’t assume that you know what’s going to be said next.

Avoid offering your opinion unless you are asked. Most people prefer to come to their own solutions. If you really must share your solution, ask first if they want to hear it – say something like “Would you like to hear my suggestions?”

 Clarify, reflect and summarise

Paraphrase and summarise what you’ve heard, to show that you’ve been listening and to check what you’ve understood. It is very easy to make assumptions, miss key elements or misinterpret messages, so check back with the speaker to check that you have understood correctly. It can be helpful to recap on what you have understood and summarise the main messages.

Practise makes perfect

At first, if you’re not used to active listening, you’ll need to make a conscious effort, but the more you do it, the more you’ll get out of it. Learn to recognize active listening by observing television and radio interviews – there are plenty of good and bad examples of active listening. Learn from the mistakes of others!


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