It’s time for repair. Our brains have taken a battering and it’s time to unravel the damage done to us by restrictions and fear induction. It’s time for us to get ourselves and our lives back to how they were. Us. Individually and collectively.
And we do that by helping each other because when we help others, we help them and ourselves.
When we help others, we gain a new perspective on the challenges we’re facing, often giving way to new ideas and solutions we may not have previously thought of and a change in perspective on how difficult our own challenges are. And studies looking at the power of giving have found that we boost both our happiness and our resilience  by giving to others.
So what’s an easy way of helping others and indirectly ourselves as we rebuild our health, resilience and connectedness?
Being a good listener is one powerful way.
The Power Of Listening For Brain Health
Once someone has your attention it’s up to you what level of service you provide, human to human. And if you were being rated like an Uber driver, would you be well rated or would people want to spend their time with someone else?
New research using 2171 participants (54% female) with a mean age of 63 years has uncovered that – even as we lose cerebral volume due to ageing or illness – the brain retains its cognitive resilience when we have social support specifically in the form of supportive listening.
Cognitive resilience here refers to cognitive processes being less vulnerable to decline due to brain structure changes brought on by age- and disease-related changes (such as Alzheimer disease).
In the study, participants were asked questions to uncover the degree to which they received the following forms of social support, rating each as either ‘none of the time’, ‘a little of the time’, ‘some of the time’, ‘most of the time’, or ‘all of the time’:
- listening (‘Can you count on anyone to listen to you when you need to talk?’);
- advice (‘Is there someone available to give you good advice about a problem?’);
- love-affection (‘Is there someone available to you who shows you love and affection?’);
- emotional support (‘Can you count on anyone to provide you with emotional support?’);
- sufficient contact (‘Do you have as much contact as you would like with someone you feel close to, someone in whom you can trust and confide?’)
Their cerebral volume was also measured.
The researchers found that participants with high (vs low) availability of supportive listening were associated with cognitive resilience, suggesting better cognitive function overall than would be expected for lower cerebral volume due to age- and disease-related changes. They did not find such an association for any of the other four types of social support.
Clearly, having listening support is protective. It protects our brain from decline.
Other Studies Have Found Similar
This finding reinforces discoveries from the notorious Grant and Glueck Studies, which led to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, with data spanning back to 1938.
When discussing their findings from this research spanning almost 80 years at the time, I wrote in Resilient Me how researchers had discovered the following:
‘Good, secure relationships are good for the brain. They protect our brains from decline and we maintain sharper memories. Even if you’re in late adulthood and bicker a lot with your significant loved ones, as long as you feel you can rely on them when you really need to, your bickering won’t hinder your memories.’
So these two different studies into cognitive resilience and adult development, highlight that even if we don’t always see eye-to-eye with our loved ones, as long as we feel safe and supported, those relationships keep our brains healthy as we age. Therefore, simply by being a truly supportive listener we can help our loved ones stay healthy.
Furthermore, director of research, Robert Waldinger, stated during a Ted Talk on the study : ‘The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”
Plus, in an interview published on The Harvard Gazette, Waldinger highlights the importance of today’s habits on long-term future outcomes by stating, ‘You can see how people can start to differ in their health trajectory in their 30s, so that by taking good care of yourself early in life you can set yourself on a better course for ageing.’ 
Wow! In other words, what you do now will impact yours and your loved ones’ future health in decades to come.
So positive relationships are vital for healthy ageing and negative relationships are bad for our health.
And, importantly, according to the Harvard study, more than money, fame, genes, social class, and IQ, close relationships were the most influential on peoples’ happiness.
The question is, are you a good source of support for the important people in your life and do you have the support you need for a happy, healthy you, today and tomorrow?
To help you give great support to those in your life who need it, and to help you know who in your life is giving you real listening support and who isn’t, let’s look at some more research.
Feeling Heard Matters
In a study on employees in the workplace , researchers found that a person who had spoken to a colleague only felt heard if the listener responded attentively to their needs as a consequence of the conversation.
Even if someone listened carefully but later failed to follow up with the expected actions, the person who had spoken felt unheard.
‘Speakers’ ultimately only felt heard if action was taken on the contents of the dialogue and that could have been verbally during the conversation or verbally and/or practically after. Merely listening attentively did not leave the speaker feeling heard.
The study demonstrated that when people spoke to others with the intention of seeking emotional or practical support and their intended outcome was not achieved, whether explicitly stated or not, the speaker did not feel supported. So listening with the aim of supporting the other person, is vital.
In the study, participants did not feel supported by the ‘listener’ when the listener’s behaviour demonstrated that they were:
(a) distracted (so listening passively and not attending to the speaker),
(b) listening superficially (so not following through with action),
(c) rejected them (for example, by immediately shutting down a request without reason).
These three traits may be harming your relationships in your work or personal life.
Got a spouse who is distracted from you all the time, a friend who rejects your attempts to discuss issues, a family member who pretends to care but is really just adding up good points to manipulate how others see them? Or are you always too caught up in your own self and subsequently failing to be a great friend, partner, colleague or family member?
And the participants found that the difference between listening superficially and listening supportively where they felt heard, was: responding attentively during the conversation such as giving advice or checking back in with the person at a later time and continuing the conversation to continue supporting them.
In other words, the speakers felt heard when listeners were open to the conversation early on and provided ongoing responses to meet the speakers’ needs and expectations.
So feeling heard means feeling the other person is present and is genuinely attending to your conversational needs.
How People Listen Changes How We Feel About Them
Even in new relationships, we are gauging the level of connection between us based on the listening skills of the other person and the flow of our conversation.
In another study , participants were made to converse with someone trained to respond with either (a) active listening messages, (b) advice, or (c) simple acknowledgements.
They defined active listening as: (i) displaying moderate to high non-verbal involvement/communicative responses, (ii) verbally paraphrasing the speaker’s message to demonstrate empathy and understanding, and where relevant, (iii) asking questions to encourage the speaker to elaborate on the details of their experience.
The researchers discovered that participants who received active listening responses (defined above) felt more understood than participants who received either advice or simple acknowledgements.
Participants were also more satisfied by active listening responses or advice than by simple acknowledgements, and equally satisfied by either active listening responses or advice.
The type of response received also influenced how socially attractive they found their conversational partner. Participants who received either active listening responses or advice found their conversational partner to be more socially attractive than participants who received simple acknowledgements.
Supportive Listening Helps Our Health and Happiness Massively
So from the four studies outlined here we’ve discovered that:
- Supportive listening protects our brain from decline by maintaining cognitive resilience even as we lose cerebral volume due to ageing or disease.
- Happy, healthy relationships breed happy, healthy individuals as we age.
- Listening attentively and acting upon the information to provide support makes the speaker feel heard.
- Even in new relationships, active listening makes people feel understood and that is achieved by the listener displaying moderate to high non-verbal responses, verbally paraphrasing what the speaker is saying to demonstrate understanding and empathy, and when relevant, asking questions to elicit more important details.
So now you know how to help improve and protect the health and happiness of your loved ones and which people do the same for you.
Seek to be that supportive person to those around you at work and home, and seek out those supportive people for your own health and happiness, too. We need help getting back to our resilient, anxiety free selves and happy relationships help get us there.
How To Be A Great Listener
Being a great supportive listener means:
bringing compassion and concern to help someone reach a positive conclusion.
So that you too can be a supportive listener who helps rebuild your loved ones’ cognitive abilities, mental health, happiness and resilience, here are Six Steps For Being A Supportive Listener to help you help them, and subsequently, your relationship and, indirectly, yourself.
- Show them you’re present. Let them know you’re actively listening by using plenty of non-verbal responses and paraphrasing to demonstrate compassion and understanding.
- Ask questions, don’t assume. Be compassionately curious instead of accidentally assuming you know how they feel, what they’re thinking, what they plan to do, and what they want you to do. Ask questions to find out more.
- Watch and listen (and feel) as you communicate. Be present. Absorb all verbal and non-verbal incoming information attentively. Allow your brain to capture as much of it as possible. People don’t always verbalise what they think or feel, sometimes you have to capture that information elsewhere.
- Be reflective rather than reactive in your response. Care enough to want to know what will ease their stress or worry and mentally take a step back to think about what their motivation is for sharing this with you, what they want or need from you.
- Follow up with action. Let them know they have been heard by offering emotional and/or practical help in the moment, and where necessary, at later moments in time too, so that they know that you heard, you cared and you acted.
- Repeat steps one to five. Keep the conversation alive. The conversation will die a natural death when it’s meant to.
When you think about the aforementioned studies, and look at these simple Six Steps For Being A Supportive Listener, you see how whether someone is a great listener or not helps you to gauge how healthy they are to be around, both now and in the long-run.
Go be a supportive listener for your loved ones so that you can help get those struggling with life’s challenges, to get back to being happy and healthy, and nurture those who are happy and healthy, to stay that way for life. What a gift to give. And like all good deeds, you will benefit too.
1. Owen, S. (2017|). ‘Resilient Me: How to worry less and achieve more’. UK: Orion Publishing
2. Waldinger, R. (2016). ‘What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness’. USA: TED. https://youtu.be/8KkKuTCFvzI
3. Mineo, L. (2017). ‘Good genes are nice, but joy is better’. USA: The Harvard Gazette. Available at: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/
4. Kriz, T. D., Kluger, A. N., & Lyddy, C. J. (2021). Feeling Heard: Experiences of Listening (or Not) at Work. Frontiers in psychology, 12, 659087. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.659087
5. Weger Jr., H., Castle Bell, G., Minei, E. M., & Robinson, M. C. (2014) The Relative Effectiveness of Active Listening in Initial Interactions. International Journal of Listening, 28:1, 13-31, DOI: 10.1080/10904018.2013.813234