Has someone you love recently suffered a loss? Divorce, miscarriage, death, or illness? Your support can be a huge blessing and part of their healing process. But, what do you say to them? Being an active and empathetic listener is key. But, what exactly does that mean? It isn’t something that comes naturally and it takes some learning and practice. Here are four ways to become a master listener.
1. More ears, less mouth. Your therapist (hopefully) should be an example of a good listener. Your priest or clergy-person (again, hopefully) is another example. A good professional gives less advice than you’d think. It is better to help someone find their own answers and truth than to give out advice. So, listen and resist the urge to fix the situation. Instead, give your loved a safe and loving space to share while you are fully present and lovingly focused on them.
2. Resist the urge to talk about your experiences. As human beings, we have the natural tendency to commiserate. Your chemo sounds awful. My aunt went through chemo last year and you should have seen how she reacted! It is so habitual that it may feel unnatural to stop yourself from going down this conversation track. Resist the urge and just listen, nod, offer little sounds of encouragement that show that person you are open to them sharing.
3. Be empathetic, but don’t get caught up your own emotions. Empathizing with someone else’s pain is good...in moderation. The inability to empathize is actually a sign of some personality disorders and generally makes you unpleasant to be around. That is somewhat obvious. But, what is less known is that too much empathy is a bad thing, too. Think of empathy as a bell curve, with your sweet spot of empathy right in the middle. If you cross over that line into too much empathy, you become overwhelmed, overemotional, and will eventually withdraw. If you feel other people’s pain too much, you cease to be helpful to them. And, even worse, they may feel obligated to stop sharing or try to comfort you.
4. If this loss impacted you, don’t look to them for comfort. When a loss or crisis occurs, many people are impacted. But the ones most impacted, should be the ones most cared for and protected. For example, your two best friends go through a divorce. You might be thinking, If they can’t make it, how does my marriage stand a chance? What am I going to do about parties now? This reminds me of my parents’ divorce. Your pain and grief are real and should be shared and processed…but not with the people who are more impacted than you. You will only add to their grief.
Think of grief like a hill filled with all the people who are impacted. The most impacted are at the top of the hill and the least impacted at the bottom. The sharing should go downhill. All the people above you on that hill can share their grief down to you and you can share yours with those below you or next to you. Grief and pain should not roll up this hill because the ones at the top are already overwhelmed and in shock. As the people heal, the hill flattens and things return to normal.
Every person processes grief differently and needs different types of support. But, it is hard to go wrong with showing up, listening, and being available. Listening will help you pick up on cues to what that person needs from you (babysitting, a hug, watching a movie together). You might not feel like you are helping, but your presence and love are huge in the healing process. And don’t forget to take care of yourself after taking care of others. Being an empathetic listener can be draining, so be sure to listen to your internal cues and fill your own cup with self-care and support from others.
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