Listening For The Answer


Last Thursday was R U OK? Day in Australia. Founded by Gavin Larkin after the suicide of his father, it is a day to remind us to check in with our fellow travellers through life starting with the simple question “Are you okay?”

This year’s R U OK? Day took on particular poignancy in the wake of the death a few days before of a well-known Australian footballer and coach in a single vehicle crash that investigations seem to indicate was deliberate.

We can never really know the pain another is carrying so it’s important to start a conversation that may save a life.

But before you ask the question “Are you okay?” here’s a couple of things to think about:

1. Be prepared to listen to the answer

This is no “How are you?” automatic piece of politeness. If you’re going to ask someone if they are okay, you need to be prepared to listen to the answer. And don’t take any preconceived ideas into the conversation about what you think may be wrong. If the answer doesn’t match your preconceptions, you run the risk of dismissing the answer or ending the conversation because it’s not as bad as you thought or you don’t think it’s something worth talking about. Which brings me to the next point.

2. The experience of pain is unique to each person

The “Orchid Hypothesis” put forward by David Dobbs supposes that some children are more strongly affected by both positive and negative experiences in their lives while ‘dandelions’ thrive in whatever life throws at them. In a similar vein, Jerome Kagan researched the effect new experiences had on a group of 4-month-old babies and predicted (correctly) that those who reacted strongly by loud cries and rapid movement were the ones most likely to grow up to be introverts while those who remained quieter and calmer would likely be extroverts. He introduced the terms “high-reactive” and “low-reactive” to describe those who are deeply affected by new experiences and those who are less so. And this has a physiological basis. High-reactive people have a more reactive amygdala, the part of the brain that controls many of our basic emotions such as fear.*

All this sciencey stuff is just to say that people have different pain thresholds for mental and emotional pain just as they do for physical pain. So, when you ask “Are you okay?”, the other person may describe an experience that has made them not okay that may seem trivial to you. But the pain to that person is real and deserves as much care and attention as any other experience.

It’s also worth noting that high-reactive people are often aware that their reaction to an event may seem minor to others and may use words such as “It’s nothing”, “It’s stupid” or “It’s really nothing worth talking about”. They need to be told that it is something, it’s not stupid and you do want to listen if they want to talk about it.

3. Empathy not sympathy

In responding to a person’s answer, it’s important to respond with empathy not sympathy. I could explain the difference but I think this video does it in a much clearer and more entertaining way:


So, take the time to look around you, notice the people in your life and find out if they’re okay. The R U OK? website has some fantastic resources for having these conversations.

I’m not going to expect you to answer “Are you okay?” in the public forum of the comments on this blog but I do ask you that question and hope you can find someone you trust to talk to if your answer is “No.” There are also trusted services such as Lifeline you can call.


*Reference: Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

PS I’m also not going to answer the question in this public forum. I will admit to some mental health struggles in recent times which has prompted this post but I am receiving good support and assistance and while the seas are still a bit choppy, I am no longer feeling swamped. Thanks for asking. 🙂


36 thoughts on “Listening For The Answer

  1. Absolutely awesome article!👍👍
    I won’t bore y’all with the videos/thoughts/demons/issues that have run through my head as far back as I can remember. One of my problems has always been not listening & always talking. Believe me it has backfired a bunch! So thank y’all so much for a great site.🏁🤘🖖😎✌️

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You are absolutely amazing! I’m a 54 year old man that has been in many of those rodeos and have the scars to prove it. lol To be honest I’ve followed you but I never really read your post. I’m truly sorry I haven’t because you have some really great stuff. I believe you are not only becoming one with yourself but helping many others to do the same. Keep up the awesome work and I can’t wait to read more of your post.Sincerely Jimi @flynfish777crew @floridalivvin @lagenteguapa & many more.Thank you so much for being you.

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPad

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think maybe in those situations you could say “I can’t even imagine what that must be like for you. It must feel so stressful/painful/devastating (whatever the person is expressing).” Everybody really just wants to know they’ve been heard and that their feelings are valid.

      Thanks for being a listener, Dan.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. First of all, I’m glad you are feeling supported — long may it last.

    I confess I am a bit cynical about things like RU OK day and even more all those shared “talk to me if you need help” posts on FaceBook — for all the reasons you point out. So thank you for writing this Heather. I hope it helps change behaviours.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would hope so too. Yes, the answer could be hard but if we ask the question, we need to be prepared to hear it. Otherwise there’s little point in asking. Asking and then not listening can sometimes be just as damaging to the other person’s mental health as not asking at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I like this idea and the fact that science is finally catching on to what makes us introverts tick. Quietness, in a word. I will keep the R U OK question in mind when I talk with people. So simple a question…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Some excellent resources in this post!
    RUOK? My husband and I have recently encouraged two relatives to seek professional help for depression. In both cases, it had to be more than just listening. It was helping them decide who to contact for help first, looking for the resources they needed to connect to and nudging them along until they had got professional help.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Heather I am so glad to hear that you have reached out and are getting the support. I think the more we bring the topic of mental health and wellness to the forefront the easier it is for people to answer honestly as to how they are. I agree that just asking someone out of courtesy is not enough. Being present and truly willing to listen is vital.
    Sending huge hugs your way.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for sharing a bit of yourself and Brene’s Ted Talk. I’ve been earnestly trying to connect better with people when I feel they need a listening ear and to crawl down the hole instead of eating a sandwich. It’s easy to fail at this because I get busy with my own life and it’s sometimes easier to sympathize than empathize. That being said, I’m always here for one of my all-time favorite introverts. You have my email, friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I think that predictor of introverts is probably correct, in most cases. Certainly describes my highly reactive eldest. I feel like the video was a bit harsh on sympathy though, but totally agree there is a big difference between it and empathy. Empathy is supportive and does build connection as empathy for another, is as if you can understand a little of what the other is going through, by imagining yourself in their shoes for a moment. Empathy has many benefits for the receiver and the giver.
    Excellent points you’ve raised here and well done for increasing awareness of suicide and mental illness. A colleague lost her brother many years ago to suicide and the ripple effects still continue in many different ways for each member of the family deals with it in very different ways. The trigger may only be just one weak moment, in a person’s life or it may be many years of mental torture the weakens their resilience. R U Okay day is the initiator for starting those crucial conversations that might swing the pendulum the other way. Thank you for posting, Heather

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you, this says how I feel but with greater eloquence and no whine. Quiet is on my nightstand at the present and has just jumped to the top of my TBR list on the basis of this post. Also, thanks for that Brene Brown clip – so useful.


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