When something bad happens we want to help, but we may not know how. We want to offer support but may not feel qualified to have conversations with people who have experienced a loss or other trauma.

Something we can do is listen. Listening is a powerful way to show support and is a skill that can be used any time in almost any situation.  Active listening involves more than just hearing the words being said; it is listening in a way that demonstrates genuine care & understanding.

Active listening builds trust, conveys empathy and helps the person speaking feel heard and understood. 

You do not need any special skills or a degree in psychology to do this, anyone can learn to be a good listener. 

To begin with, it’s important to give the speaker your full attention; find a quiet place where you’re less likely to be interrupted, turn off the TV, put down the cell phone and focus your attention on the speaker. Show that you’re listening by making eye contact and occasionally nodding your head.

Use reflections to demonstrate you are paying attention and following what the speaker is saying. Reflections are statements instead of questions, they shine a light on something important a speaker has said (ie: “you’re sad”, “you feel like things will never get better”)

Ask open-ended questions to encourage the speaker to continue. (ie: “Can you tell me more about that?” or “What was that like?”) Resist the urge to interrupt or share your own experiences. Be patient; allow the speaker to go at their own pace. Avoid rushing to fill the quiet. 

In your own words, summarize what the speaker has told you to show them you are paying attention and processing what they are saying (ie: “So this is what I’m hearing…”).  Do not offer opinions or advice; your role is not to fix or change how the speaker is feeling. The goal is to understand and connect with the speaker.

Express empathy by putting yourself in their shoes and validating the speaker’s experience or feelings (ie: “I can imagine why you feel that way”. “It makes sense that you are upset/frustrated about what happened.”) Empathy is different from sympathy in that it conveys true understanding rather than just feeling bad for someone’s situation.

One of the most supportive things you can do for someone in any situation is to listen. Although it may feel like you’re not actually doing much, providing a safe, non-judgemental space for someone to tell their story is an effective way to create trust and understanding and to help someone begin to heal.