Your friend sends you long paragraphs about their breakup or their boss or their grief. How can you show them that you’re engaged and listening? Even before the pandemic, we’ve known there are certain aspects of face-to-face communication that are impossible to replicate over text or call. When you want to comfort a loved one, it’s frustrating to lose in-person subtleties like eye contact, a sympathetic nod, or simply being present.
At the same time, there are benefits unique to venting over text, like getting out an entire paragraph of a thought without interruption or distraction. As a listener, you also have the ability to take more time to craft a thoughtful response. You might even have the courage to type something out that you wouldn’t necessarily say to someone’s face.
Even with the obstacles of digital communication, most of the same traits of good listening still apply. It’s always worthwhile to read up on how to be a good listener when someone needs to vent. Below are more tips to be a good listener specifically over text.
How to use reflective listening
We’ve explained how to practice reflective listening in the past. The secret is to paraphrase and re-interpret what your friend is saying, rather than parroting their points right back at them. Dr. Travis Bradberry, co-author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, explains that you should “use your own words to show that you’ve absorbed the information.”
If appropriate, you can also try to use your own words to describe how they might be feeling. An example that psychotherapist Sarah Rice gave Bustle is saying something like, “It seems like what you are experiencing is really difficult and frustrating.” This shows your friend that you’re not just listening to what they’re saying, but how they’re saying it.
Respond, don’t react
The beauty of texting is that your friend will get to finish their thought before you instinctively cut in with a question, a gasp, or a tangent. Instead of these kinds of impulse reactions, you have the time to craft a thoughtful response, like asking follow-up questions or getting clarification about what they’re feeling.
If you have listener’s writer’s block, here are some sentence starters you can try to respond, not react:
- Do you mean…
- It sounds like you’re feeling…
- What I’m hearing is…
- I’m sorry you’re going through this, [clarifying question]
- Do you need solutions right now or support from me?
This is a key facet of reflective listening and becoming a better listener in general.
Mirror tone with your texting style
True, texting means you can’t pick up on tonal cues in your friend’s voice or body language. But if you notice they’re suddenly using perfect punctuation, now is not the time to communicate with emojis. Longer paragraphs of text can help demonstrate that you’re fully present, while short bursts of text can keep things light and ensure your friend feels comfortable. Mirror texting style as a way of reflecting your friend’s emotions.
Re-read their text before responding
While second-guessing and retyping your texts over and over could add stress to your friend’s situation, you can still take advantage of the time that isn’t available in face-to-face interactions. Give yourself 30 seconds before sending off your response. In addition to calming the pace of the conversation, you can make sure you’re being thorough and not leaving out key points from your friend’s end.
Can’t call? Try voice memos
If you and your friend have the same brand of smartphone, you can probably send each other voice memos. These are the secret weapons of quality vent sessions, especially if you struggle with typing out your thoughts and feelings. You get the benefits of uninterrupted rants that come with texting, as well as the emotional cues in someone’s voice that come with calls. Plus, you can re-record as many times as you need.
With texting, your friend might dive into a full venting session when you’re in the middle of your work day, or driving somewhere, or generally distracted because life is exhausting. Clue them into where you are mentally and physically, so they know you are not purposefully ignoring them for whatever reason. If need be, consider telling them that you’ve read their texts but need a few hours to respond fully. Always opt for transparency.
Avoid iMessage reacts
Are you hearting my message because you love that I’m sad? What do those exclamation points even mean? These reactions leave too much up to interpretation, so skip them.
As with any kind of listening, your friend likely just needs to be supported and heard. Even over text, your job is not to be perfect but to be present. Sometimes–maybe even most times–this is as simple as finding a few different ways to say, “That’s rough, buddy.”