Jennifer Mills-Knutsen outlines some well thought out and practical Do’s and Don’ts for helping after a Disaster on her blog, For the Someday Book. I found myself nodding in agreement as I read. Of particular interest to me was her reminder to listen – and to listen patiently without judgment.
Our culture is not good at listening. We like to finish sentences for each other and refocus the attention, whether intentionally or subconsciously, onto ourselves. The trauma of a disaster leaves people needing to talk about their experience but it’s not productive to be the listener who says “I know just how you feel. When thus-and-such happened to ME, yada yada yada. “ Listening is an activity of the ears not the mouth.
Being a good listener is important after major disasters like the recent tornado outbreak in Oklahoma, but also during times of distress from illness, failed relationships and financial hardship. These less far-reaching, more personal disasters also leave people needing to tell their story and it’s a boon to their mental health to have a caring listener who accepts whatever emotions they are currently tracking on the carpet.
Feelings just are; they are neither good nor bad, they just are. As a listener, try to let emotions flow on by without redirection, evaluation or judgment. Pain and fear can sound angry and there may be something cathartic in verbally lashing out at a perceived roadblock even if that blame is misplaced. If you pass on the opportunity to correct someone who is blaming the wrong person or agency, you allow them freedom to vent without the burden of logic. The need is to tell the story until it falls into perspective and the healing begins.
Likewise, pain and fear are repetitious. Listen like you’ve never heard it before.
Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen. — Margaret J. Wheatley