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Man up? No, listen up

Nick Booth (@ohthisbloodypc) explores why good listeners are top men.

If you know someone with a problem and you’re not either a doctor or a deity, please don’t give them advice. You’ll only make things worse. Listeners, on the other hand, are priceless.

Do you know people who… “anticipate what you’re trying to say, jump in and rescue you from your inarticulacy?”

Sorry, I was interrupted there. I wasn’t going to say that at all. Bit insulting when people butt in isn’t it? Anyway, I’ll try again. Don’t you hate it when… “when men Mansplain? Oh god yes that’s awful…”

No, sorry, I wasn’t going to say that either. What I’m trying to say is, I find it enormously frustrating when… “You’re frustrated? You know what I’d do? Punch them in the face!”

No, no, stop it. What I’m trying to say… is I hate it when people can’t listen.

When you are feeling down, a pompous bore with useless advice can tip you over the edge. I’ve been on both sides of that situation, I’m ashamed to say.

I’m not sure which is worse, the rude interruptions or the uncalled for ludicrous advice. Chances are you didn’t ask for it, they aren’t qualified to give it and it will only make your situation worse.

The idea that you can instant fix other people’s problems seems to be a manly conceit, but I don’t think women are immune to it either. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an admirable trait to want to help people, but the assumption that theirs are easy to fix (while our own are always massively complex and nobody else’s business) is insulting and damaging.

It’s a massive conceit, to think you know how to sort people’s problems. You’re also, in effect, telling the other person that you think they are stupid. Applying some glib meaningless slogan – “You wanna man up mate” – often makes the other person feel worse. That’s almost as nauseating as the other perennial favourite: “I’d never let that happen to me!” These days I rate people by how quickly they turn a conversation around to them. One day I might turn it into an app that measures the MTTPG (the mean time to personal grandstanding).

I vividly remember the rising sense of panic I experienced when I was ten and I’d gone back to school after my mum had died. I was doing alright until this narcisstic personality disorder of a ‘friend’ decided that was his platform for his emotional exhibitionism. I will never forget that feeling of events being taken out of my control and my own feelings being hijacked. I got sent home that day. That will teach me to try and be manly.

I don’t know if this is true of women, but there are certain types of men who are guaranteed to make any situation worse with their partisan interventions. You can hear them dispensing their wisdom in the pubs; “You wanna sue for divorce mate. You’ll get a fortune!”

It’s amazing how many of the world’s experts on football, world affairs and family life are never actually employed in these fields. Instead, for no apparent reason, they spend most of their time in office jobs, drinking in Wetherspoons or calling Talk Radio.

In truth, though it’s painful to watch and you might be desperate to help, you’re likely to make things worse with an intervention. You don’t know the nuances of the other person’s personal circumstances, you don’t know how selectively they are reporting their side of a dispute and you’re almost certainly not qualified to advise them. Only they can be the author of their own recovery. They will do that when they are ready, not when you push them. If you push someone up a tree before they’ve learned to climb, they’ll fall out and get hurt.

Listening to your friends is the best way you can help. Ask them questions and sympathise. People in any kind of trauma often have a tangle of conflicting feelings and their emotions are all over the place. By talking things out, they can often unravel all their thoughts, assess their issues more clearly and come to their own decisions. Making their own decisions is empowering, because they feel in control. It’s never enjoyable if someone grabs your steering wheel is it?

After some horrible passages in my own life I thought, fuck it, I might as well help other people and got some training in mentoring. In both courses I went on they impress upon you the importance of just listening and managing your own expectations. You can’t turn people’s lives around with a speech, so if you were hoping to be immortalised in a stained glass window, you might have to be a bit more patient. In the meantime, try and remember it’s not about you.

It’s quite liberating not to feel you have to fix people’s problems. Or to expect anything back. I much prefer the neutrality of just asking people questions about themselves.

One thing you notice, once you become a conscientious listener, is that some people can talk all night about themselves and not know a thing about you. Not just men either. People love it if you ask them about themselves.

You also notice how few journalists on TV are good listeners, even though that’s sort of central to their job. I’ve noticed that ex Liberal leader Nick Clegg never answers the questions put to him, but answers the imaginary question he wanted to be asked, railing against a set of circumstances that doesn’t exist!

Investigative journalist and TV researchers are good listeners. Detectives are good listeners and rarely butt in as people unravel their thoughts. Except the detectives on TV, whose words are seemingly scripted by people who’ve never met a policeman in their lives.

It’s a long time since I was a young man, but I imagine most of the social conditions are the same with today’s youth. I don’t feel qualified to speculate on why male suicide is so disproportionate, but it must be hard to find a sympathetic ear. As I’ve got older, I’m even less certain about life than I was when I was younger. The only thing I’m sure about is that we should listen to each other more and ask more questions.

Does that make sense?

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article or in the comments below, are not those held by CALM or its Trustees unless stated, and liability cannot be accepted for such comments. We encourage friendly and constructive debate, but please don't share personal contact details when commenting and exercise caution when considering any advice offered by others. We don’t allow abusive, offensive or inappropriate comments or comments that could be interpreted as libellous, defamatory or commercial and we will remove these without warning as and when we find them.

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