Exploring how to listen and respond to people in distress

On this page we will explore the skill of engaging with, listening and responding to people in distress. This is a skill that can be required regularly when you care for people who are unwell or who are wondering what is wrong with them; in these situations  people want to be heard and to feel they have been listened too and understood. These skills are a cornerstone of empathy and caring and the exercises on this  page will help you to consider how can you prepare yourself to do this with others.

In the first exercise you will learn to understand how to listen; in the second you will have the opportunity to engage in a real life narrative which offers a thoughtful and moving account of: first, being dismissed and misdiagnosed when presenting with a rare and complex condition; and second, finding hope when a doctor took the time to listen, understand and investigate fully.

By the end of this page you will be able to: 

  • Understand why it can be difficult to listen to others who are concerned or distressed
  • Understand how to give attention to and actively listen to someone who is concerned or distressed
  • Apply the principles of listening, acknowledging and helping others in difficult situations
  • Reflect on the experience of a real life situation and critically consider how you would respond to in a similar situation.

Activity 1: Learning to listen, acknowledge and help

Responding to the person in distress can be challenging. Partly because depending on the situation it may trigger an emotional response for you personally which is why emotional resilience is so important.

There are lots of different techniques and models that utilize different psychological frameworks which can be used in these situations; however at a simple level there are components that commonly recur in all of these different models. These are:


Listen or attend to the person and ask questions. Use active listening skills, avoid interrupting them and use open questioning to sensitively help the person share and explore their situation. It is not about looking for immediate solutions; rather it is about allowing the person to share their concerns and experiences. Listen to the Powtoon below to review some of these practical techniques further:

Acknowledge, understand and empathise

Use communication strategies that you already know to demonstrate empathy. Use words that have emotional content and respond appropriately to  emotional cues   Reflect back what the person has told you, demonstrate that you are listening and ensure that you have understood what they are sharing with you. It is important to remain accepting and non-judgemental.


Ask the person what they feel would help or be useful to do. You are trying to help them have a sense of control or autonomy, and to enable them to consider what options they have in terms of what they want to do next. Depending on the situation, you may want to make suggestions; however it is important that the person is involved in sharing decisions: co-production, partnership and shared decision making are all integral to working effectively with others.

Activity 2: Learning to listen to others in complex cases.

Click on this link to read a real life narrative on being first, dismissed and misdiagnosed when presenting with a rare and complex condition and then finding hope when a doctor took the time to listen, understand and investigate fully. When you have finished work through the following reflective questions:

  • Take a moment to reflect on the story’s key messages and think about how they might influence you in practise.
  • Apply the principles of listening, empathising, acknowledging and helping the person in distress to the scenario. Can you see where these skills have been used?.
  • Finally, make a list of other techniques or ideas you found in the narrative that you felt were valuable in understanding, empathising, helping and listening to others and how these link to care, compassion, dignity and respect. As an example, some of mine were: really working in partnership; thinking zebras (complexity) not horses (simplicity); genuine positive regard and respect for the other; really listening and engaging, not dismissing; being a detective and digging deep to find the real answers rather than brushing off or simplifying to the detriment of the person concerned.

Keep digging...you might find the truth...however improbable

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