Are You A Supportive Listener?

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Photo by Min An on

I read something recently that was written as a guideline for a meeting. At first, it felt rather restrictive and I felt intimidated by it, and afraid to share input if I would happen to have any. But then I went back over the guidelines and could really appreciate that they were written to keep the meeting a safe environment for any and all input (and attendees). I also questioned, as a result, what type of listener I am.

I’ve been asked more than once to write about supporting people with PTSD, trauma, etc. and I’ve really floundered on responding to this topic. I could quite readily write a “Do Not” list, but I really wanted whatever my contribution is to this important conversation to be more than what to avoid. Like the guidelines for the aforementioned meeting, I would hope to offer something thoughtful and actionable. I’m not sure that this will be either, but I’ll give it a whirl.

So, what goes into being a supportive listener?

Know this: wanting to support someone is not the same as being a supportive listener. There is a myriad of well-intentioned lousy listeners amongst us.

Some key aspects for truly supportive listening:

1. Familiarize yourself with the complexities of trauma, PTSD, C-PTSD, etc.

When you do this, you are coming alongside victims, as well as educating yourself into an understanding that their struggles and needs are much more complex than a simple attitude change. Something actually changed in their brain – the organ, as opposed to their thinking mind – and help/healing is not as simple as “Just stay positive” or “Just be thankful for ________ .” (*If you’re open to/interested in learning more, I highly recommend the book I Can’t Get Over It by Aphrodite Matsakis. I’ve found it to be the most comprehensive-yet-accessible guide to trauma out there, for both survivors and supporters.*)

2. Don’t go into a conversation to help. Go in to listen.

And then listen. Be there with no agenda other than to be there.

3. Check your bags at the door.

If you ask a survivor to share their story, pain or current suffering with you, this is not an opportunity to make the conversation about you in any way – not by hijacking the conversation and making it about your story or pain or suffering, nor by trying to manage your own discomfort by “cleaning the other side of the street,” nor by assuaging your need to be needed. Rescuers and Fixers, beware.

4. Go with the apostle Paul when you need a solid guideline on what constitutes good listening: “Love (and thereby listening) is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude….” 1 Corinthians 13:4-5 (NLT)

When you are truly listening, you’ll be patient. Expecting someone to be anywhere other than where they are right now, or expecting them to make a change instantly, is not patient. We are all in process, and no one’s process, timeline, experience or approach is the same.

When you are truly listening, you’ll be kind. Minimizing or dismissing someone’s pain, suffering or experience is unkind. Telling someone how to feel, or “Should-ing” them after they’ve told you how they feel, is unkind. When you do those things, it’s about you. Try to resist that ever-present temptation.

When you are truly listening, you won’t boast or be prideful about how you handled what you think is the same/a similar situation (or something unrelated…). Every person is different as is every situation, and expecting someone to respond the way you did or you heard someone else did is not fair. And, side note, who says your way was healthy or that you turned out fine? (Wink)  You are not listening if you are telling, and maybe that’s the best guideline for listening. You are not listening – hearing – if you are telling.

My experience is that people get uncomfortable, either with suffering or their own feelings of powerlessness over someone’s suffering, or impatience for another’s struggles – whatever the case may be – and so they shift to managing the other person instead of their own issues and discomfort. My personal experience is that Christians in particular are some of the worst listeners. (And listen, I am one, so don’t get the idea that I’m a hater and just using this as an opportunity to give Christians a black eye.)(Not that it’s not deserved …. )  The older I get, the more hesitant I am to be forthcoming with Christians when I’m struggling. I think they really want to be supportive listeners, but I’ve not experienced most to be so.

A supportive listener is patient, and slow to speak. Christians tend to respond like they (we) have all the answers. They (we) don’t. They (we) also tend to give glib responses and scriptures with an unspoken expectation that you change on the spot. It’s cheap grace, folks. It’s not listening, and it’s definitely not supportive. I bring this up largely as a caution in general, and also because it’s my experience. I have experienced more secondary wounding at the hands of Christians than anyone. *Secondary wounding is another thing worth reading up on. Simply put, it is harm done to a survivor when they are seeking help to heal from the initial event(s). It mainly comes in the form(s) of: denial/disbelief/discounting, stigmatization, blaming the victim, and the denial of help. It’s mainly caused by ignorance, though there are also cultural factors and philosophies that contribute.

A supportive listener is kind. For cryin’ out loud, get this figured out! You can be a kind-hearted person and not be a supportive listener. It’s not only about your intentions, but execution. A supportive listener validates, they don’t minimize or dismiss. If you find yourself doing the latter, take a beat and ask yourself why. What buttons of yours are getting pushed?

Try not to take the other person’s inventory, or to fix them. Just listen. Listen with genuine compassion. Put yourself in that person’s shoes, and not in the “If I was you, I would have done this instead” way. Listen without thinking of how you’re going to respond, or of how they should be making different choices, or of the formula you’re sure would change their life. JUST. LISTEN. Hear the pain or shame in their voice. See it in their eyes. Notice their fidgeting or nervousness or shaking or tears, and realize how hard it may be to be vulnerable to you in this way. Honor that.

Most people with trauma, PTSD, C-PTSD, etc., aren’t talking because they want you to fix them; you can’t. Most people are in need of a safe space to share things they had to hide or outrun since their trauma or maybe all their lives. Acknowledging things that had to be kept secret is often very difficult, frightening, frustrating, and extremely vulnerable. People doing this need validation, not analysis. Compassion. Company, meaning someone to simply sit with and witness their story. Someone to enter that deep, dark rabbit hole of their reality with a candle, offer a hand to hold, and just be there. Survivors are incredibly resourceful and resilient or they wouldn’t have survived. They don’t need you to save them from the space they’re in now; they’ll find their way through. They do need someone to mirror for them what they deserved in the first place and may not have gotten.

A supportive listener listens.

A supportive listener accepts someone right where they’re at, and joins them there instead of trying to force them somewhere else.

A supportive listener says things like “I. am. so. sorry.” or “I can’t imagine how hard that must’ve been” or “I so get that” or “That should never have happened to you and I’m truly sorry it did.”

A supportive listener makes “I” statements, such as “I am struck by how strong you are” or “I don’t know what to say.”

A supportive listener avoids “You” statements, such as “You should” or “You need to” or “You JUST.” And a big side note here: “Just” tends to be a cue that you are reducing something, minimizing it in some way. Seriously, bite your tongue if you catch yourself about to say anything that has the phrase “you just” in it – “you just need to think about good things” ” you just need to let go of the past” “you just need to stop giving power to ________ (fear, a person, the traumatic event, etc).

No one wants freedom from their past more than those still bound by it in horrible and highly consequential ways. Again, learn about trauma, PTSD and C-PTSD to help ground yourself in the truth that the effects of any of those is absolutely not about someone not letting go of something that no longer serves them, nor is getting free of it as simple as thinking differently.

The operative part of supportive listening is listening. Not telling, blaming, solving, fixing or rescuing. Listen. Manage your own discomfort. Resist the temptation to take the other person’s inventory. Don’t reduce someone’s experience or their suffering and pain. Try not to make it about you in any way. Try to hear, both what a person is saying, and not saying. Listen with your heart, not your mouth.

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