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How To Listen When Someone is Upset or Grieving

“ When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” Ernest Hemingway.

Listening is key to all effective communication; without the ability to listen effectively messages are easily misunderstood and misinterpreted. In life in general and in particular as a life celebrant (where one is dealing with a diverse selection of people in a variety of heightened states of emotion), listening requires focus, listening means paying attention not just to what we are being told, but to how we are being told it, the use of language and how the other person uses his/ her body. What is of paramount importance when trying to listen to someone who is upset or grieving is to make the initial contact, be there and enable the other person to vocalise their emotions.

In this blog, I wanted to talk about ways to listen and help someone who is grieving or upset. Since the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic two years, ago we have all been in closer proximity to death, loss and grief. As a society though we have not been given any clear guidelines and help on how to deal with this. Of how to help each other/.

To put it simply, in order to process grief people need to talk which means others need to listen. From my own experience of handling personal grief, what the listener does not say is of equal importance to what they do say. For instance, platitudes, however, well-intentioned become cloying, advice is pointless and over empathy (however much you may want to communicate similar feelings of your own grief) becomes annoying. Patience, giving the other person time to talk uninterruptedly and well-formed gently phrased questions go a long way. Being upset or grieving is very unpredictable and a multiplicity of feelings arise, the listener needs to reassure the other person that this is normal and OK. The biggest communication problem is that we listen to reply not understand.  Try to remember that the power of language is in the flexibility of experience it reflects. So initially say little or nothing allowing yourself to be led by the person who is upset, this empowers them too as they are most probably feeling out of control at this present moment and this simple action can aid to better communication

“A sympathetic ears is such a powerful force in human relationships.” Michael P Nichols (The Lost Art of Listening)

So, how does one listen effectually to someone who is upset?

Whatever the causes of an emotional upset, the principles of listening are still the same and are as effective whether coming from a friend, colleague or professional.  Here is just a simple checklist to work from and this is not exhaustive by any account, each situation will be different and will require a slightly different response.

  • Initially check the shape that you are in personally, if you are affected by the situation and how, your aim here is to remain calm but detached. If you are too involved and not calm it may be advisable to ask someone else to help instead.  Try to ground yourself as appearing anxious and awkward does not help.
  • Make the initial contact, the person who is upset may prefer a neutral setting for this or may wish to remain where they feel secure and safe. Ask where the other person would like to see you.
  • Do a quick check of the environment you are meeting in, especially if you are a professional and have never visited the other person previously.  Looking for basics like exits, bathrooms, and kitchen are always useful. You may need to make tea, provide tissues and such like.
  • Similarly, if you are here in a professional capacity introduce yourself and state what you are present. For example “ My name is Sonia, I am a life celebrant, we spoke yesterday on the phone and I am here to help you. “Use an ice breaker if necessary, such as;“  I am so sorry to hear your news”.
  • Listen with your eyes. What is the other person communicating via non verbal signals? Watch for indicators like clenched fists, tightening of the jaw and tears forming. These provide a window to the emotions raging behind. Also be aware of tone and volume of voice.
  • Listen with your mind. Remain completely focused on the other person and what they are saying. Don’t be one step ahead and thinking of a response before they have vocalised their feelings. Preempting what another may or may not be about to say distracts one form the present moment and it is imperative to listen to your full extent. Imagine how the impact if you were to forget the basic facts regarding a loved one’s death simply because you were already planning what you were going to recommend as a venue for the ceremony, for example.
  • Listen with your heart. Haptic or communication via touch can speak fathoms. A hug from a friend is sometimes all that is needed. In a professional context however this not always viable nor indeed since the Covid 19 pandemic. Just  a squeeze of a hand or simply moving forward or closer to the other person will help, always bearing mind proxemics.  If a client reaches out you, accept this and gauge what is appropriate. Be genuine!
  • Listen with intuition. Recognise any possible discrepancy between what is being said and what is being communicated. A person who is grieving saying “I am fine” does not necessarily mean that they are and could in fact signify the complete opposite. Watch for incongruent behaviour. Do not make assumptions and respond saying what you believe the other person wants to hear.  There is nothing worse than being patronised at a time like this.
  • Listen with affirmation. Maintain comfortable eye contact, focus your attention upon the other person, nod, smile where appropriate, ask for clarity if you do not understand.
  • Listen with empathy.  By doing so we are legitimising the other person’s right to be upset. We need to build a solid rapport whether as professional or a friend, sharing in another person’s moments of upset are a humbling and ultimately humanising experience. Our shared common experiences are indeed the essence of what makes us human.
  • Listen with understanding. Don’t be passive but use active listening skills, reflect your understanding back, encourage the other person to educate you about their own unique grief journey. Accept their responses, do to argue or disagree. If you do feel somethings more appropriate advise gently and in a calm manner. Good listening is far more rare and generally much harder than most people think. That old adage “less is more “ is highly appropriate in this instance. If you do not fully comprehend what the other erosion is trying to convey to you, ask gentle open-ended question (though on occasion a close question is also pertinent). Clarify, reflect and affirm what you are being told. Above all, try not to interrupt. You may be the only person who has listened fully to this outpouring. Don’t give advice and do not share too much of your own personal experience. This situation is unique to this one person.

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. “ Leo Buscaglia

Storytelling is a part of life, intrinsic to most cultures. Stories help people make sense of the world and of their own life’s experiences, dilemmas and hardships, help people to heal and develop. In order to assimilate a major loss, the grieving person needs to create a private personal story and then confide that story to others. Developing a narrative allows a person to weave together their life changes into a new more cohesive story. One of the most important roles within the storytelling process is the listener, the enabler, the one who provides a means of processing the pain and upset.

Truly listening to someone is the act of putting yourself second and that other person first. When many of us are faced with someone who is grieving, we’ll turn around and make ourselves our main priority. We start to become nervous about what we need to say, about our own discomfort, about how we should deal with it all – and in that self-centred mindset we forget about the most important person in that situation. It’s not us. It’s that person who feels like they’re all alone in a world that’s crumbling around them because suddenly, they’re without that love they had for those precious moments it was alive. Perhaps that’s the point: you don’t need to have something to say in order to be an active listener. Reciprocation just might be the better option when faced with the upset and bereaved. Maybe approaching someone simply with a gift of listening to anything they have to say – really hearing them out and reciprocating and reflecting upon those words – is the key.

helen c johnson brighton hypnotherapist


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