How to Listen to Someone Who is Hurting

by Working World Cafe

Whenever people face bereavement, injury, or other kinds of trauma, they need to talk about it in order to heal. To talk, they need willing listeners. Unfortunately, many of us shrink from listening to people in pain. We may feel like we have enough troubles of our own, or be afraid of making matters worse by saying the wrong thing.

Sometimes we excuse ourselves by assuming that listening to people who are hurting is strictly a matter for professionals such as psychotherapists or members of the clergy. It is true that professional people can help in special ways, and provide the suffering individual with insights that most of us aren’t able to offer. However, their assistance, although valuable, is no substitute for the caring interest of supervisors, co-workers, friends, and others from the person’s normal daily life. Here are some DOs and DON’Ts to keep in mind while listening to someone who is hurting:

DO:

  • Find a private setting where you won’t be overheard or interrupted. Arrange things so that there are no large objects between you and the person.
  • Keep your comments brief and simple so you don’t get the person off track.
  • Ask questions which show your interest and encourage the person to keep talking. For example: “What happened next?” & “What was that like?”
  • Let people know it’s OK to cry. Handing over a box of tissues in a matter-of-fact way can help show that tears are normal and appropriate.

DON’T:

  • Offer unsolicited advice. People usually will ask for advice later if they need it; initially, it just gets in the way of talking things out.
  • Turn the conversation into a forum for your own experiences or say, “I know exactly how you feel.”
  • Say anything which tries to minimize the person’s pain: “You shouldn’t take it so hard;” “You’re overreacting;” or “It could be a lot worse.”
  • Say anything which asks the person to disguise or reject his/her feelings: “You’ll have to pull yourself together.”

Check about basic things like eating and sleeping. Sharing a meal may help the person find an appetite. Giving a ride to someone too upset to drive may mean a lot. Ask what you can do to be of assistance.

After you have talked to someone who is hurting, you may feel as if you have absorbed some of that person’s pain. Take care of yourself by talking to a friend, taking a walk, or doing whatever helps restore your own spirits.

If you’re having trouble talking to someone who is hurting—or if you’re hurting and need someone to talk to—call your EAP.

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