How to Better Listen to a Depressed Spouse

How to better listen to a depressed spouse using the F.L.A.P. method: focus, lean, affirm, probe.

One of the most popular articles on my blog, with over 10,000 page views to date is Supporting a Spouse Through Depression by Brad Tuft.  I’ve wanted to expand on this subject since depression is such a difficult and common problem in marriages, but neither Rich nor I have experienced clinical depression and it’s a difficult topic to ask someone to write about.

Which is why I was SO grateful when Joshua from reached out to me.  Guys, this site is a great resource.  Joshua’s posts are both incredibly helpful and fun to read.  Some of my favorite articles include “What does it mean to “be there” for someone who is depressed?”  And “5 Rules for Encouraging a Depressed Loved One to Open Up.

Also, this post about listening is SPOT ON for depressed and non-depressed spouses alike.  Thank you SO much for sharing this knowledge with us Joshua!   –  Celeste



How to Better Listen to a Depressed Spouse

A while back I opened up to my wife about my depression.

But something wasn’t right. I mean, I knew she could hear me.

But I didn’t feel like she was actually listening.

Then again, maybe that’s because she was watching the latest episode of Survival on Hulu. Bad timing, I guess?

But it got me thinking. You know the #1 piece of advice to people trying to help someone suffering from depression is to listen. Right?

(No, seriously. Look up depression help for loved ones on Google, you’ll see what I mean)

But it’s not very often that people tell you how to listen. Or give you tips on how to listen better.

It might sound silly, but it’s not. Julian Treasure, a sound consultant who gave a TED talk on listening, says that, in general, we only remember as low as 25% of what we hear.1

Isn’t that crazy? But think about it. Think of the last conversation you had with your spouse, or someone you know suffering from depression.

How much of the conversation do you remember?

Maybe you remember the gist of what he/she said, but can you remember all of it? Two sentences? Three?

This is a big problem if you’re trying to connect with and help your depressed husband (or wife, friend, family member, whoever).

How to listen better with the “f.l.a.p” technique

Now, there’s plenty of informative articles on the internet about proper listening technique.

But personally? I don’t think listening is rocket science. And I don’t think you need to spend hours studying and researching how to listen.

That’s why I condensed some of the best listening practices into one simple technique.

It’s an easy-to-remember acronym. I call it “F.L.A.P”, and I summarize it in this picture:

How to Better Listen to a Depressed Spouse.  Focus, Lean, Affirm, Probe.

Here’s another explanation for F.L.A.P in case you can’t see the picture:

    Focus is, in my opinion, the most important part of the technique. If you can’t ignore or eliminate outside distractions from the beginning, you’re toast. Every word the depressed person says is important. Pay close attention, keep your mouth shut (this is especially important), defer judgment, and listen.

    Leaning and using proper body language is the psychological way of showing the speaker he/she has your full attention. Lean slightly forward (or tilt your head towards) and face your whole body towards him/her. Make eye contact, but don’t stare. Nod occasionally.

    Affirm is for physically showing the speaker you’re listening and for better understanding the conversation. Say “yeah” and “uh-huh” occasionally. During brief pauses, repeat and summarize what he/she said. Here’s some examples:

  • “So you feel like your family and friends are ashamed of you, and that’s why you’re depressed?”
  • “So you just don’t feel like anything interests you anymore?”
  • “You’re always tired and unmotivated, huh?”

    Probing, or questioning, is done to gain a better understanding of why your husband/whoever is depressed. Oftentimes depressed people (myself included) have so many thoughts going through their heads, and just can’t think of a way to get them out. Probing is the way to do that.

I’d like to go in-depth on proper questioning later on, but for now, just remember that why questions are the simplest and most effective way to go:

  • “Why do you feel that way?
  • “Why do you feel like everyone’s ignoring you?
  • “Why do you think…”

You can also try asking questions like, “Have you done anything about…” or, “How do you think you could fix…”. Asking questions like these is a great way to spur your friend into taking action if he/she feels like a situation or circumstance is contributing to his/her depression.

Probing is fairly simple, but only if you’ve been paying close attention to the conversation. Remember focus is the most important part of FLAP.

Final thoughts

Before I end this article, I’d like to ask you a few questions.

If your husband, wife or whoever suffers from depression, do you listen to them closely? Do you feel like the FLAP technique could benefit you?

Or if you suffer from depression, have you ever felt like a friend or family member just doesn’t listen to you like you want them to? (If so, you might want to share this article with them!)

Let me know in the comments–I’d love to hear from you.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to “accidentally” leave this article up for my wife to read. 😉

1 Nichols & Lewis, 1954. Listening and Speaking: A guide to Effective Oral Communication”. A digitized version of this book can be found here.

2 thoughts on “How to Better Listen to a Depressed Spouse

  1. oftentimes my spouse and I end up talking when we’re both lying in bed staring at the ceiling. I have never thought much about body language in these conversations before. Definitely something I’d like to try to be better about in the future.

  2. Does anyone know how to deal with someone with depression? My wife has a depression issue and I feel hopeless because I don’t know how to help her. Whatever info you can give me is greatly appreciated.

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