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Chapter Ten:
Good Listening Skills

I have been asked if there is a list of quick techniques that can be used to help people communicate with victims in times of crisis or stress. While such techniques exist, they will not really help unless we can change how we normally relate to people.

Some of us are natural listeners or counselors, people that everyone turns to in times of crisis (we all know people like that). Others have to study years to acquire the same skills. While it may be possible to learn techniques, no one can teach sensitivity.

The essential ingredients of counseling are sincerity, warmth, and the ability to really listen. Every of us is an individual and approaches each situation a bit differently, but the basics are the same. There are those who believe that counseling is an art. Yet even with art, it is necessary to study and understand methodology to improve skills.

I have seen people — even professionals — who know all the right words but can't say them without a certain artificiality that is apparent to both participants and onlookers. The effectiveness of such "listening" is limited, to say the least. On the other hand, there are people who are sincere and on whose faces you can see the caring. These are the people who can sit down next to a survivor and win his trust and confidence in a very short time.

Much of modern counseling, especially in emergency situations, is based on the non-directive approach to psychology made famous by Carl Rodgers known as Rodgerian psychology. Anyone who has trained to work on a hotline is familiar with these basic guidelines.

The key is to establish a mutual, non-judgmental relationship. Within a very short time the relationship must offer trust and security that will allow free flow of emotions between the survivor and the support person.

Listening and guidance should be gently interwoven. You may notice that I use the word "guidance" rather then "advice". The difference lies in the emphasis and who does the initiating. If the survivor asks where to go for more help, you respond by offering guidance. If you say that it is better to act in a certain way, then you are offering advice.

This isn't to say that there is no place at all for advice. If, for example, you feel that someone needs professional help, then you can gently suggest that you are limited in your knowledge that and he should be in touch with a local support service, mental health center, etc. (Give him names of appropriate contacts.) It would be even better making the connections yourself.

A trusting relationship may already exist in cases such as friend sitting shiva, or the friends of our children who have lost a buddy. But what about a short shiva visit or worse, being at the scene of a multi-casualty incident? Offering even just a few minutes of emotional first aid at the scene can be crucial to the victim's psychological recovery.

Lior, who is a social worker for the city of Jerusalem, told me, "All you have is a few minutes. Sometimes I cry inside knowing that I should spend more time with each person, but the best I can do is listen and make certain that I know how to reach them the next day so that we can set up more structured support systems through my office. The faster I can get them to talk about what happened, the better off they will be. "

People at the site of an incident can play an invaluable role in helping those who seem to be the most distraught. However, we all share a number of fears about getting involved:

  • A sense of our own inadequacy and the feeling that we don't have the skills to really help

  • A feeling that it is presumptuousness in offering help to someone we don't know.

  • Fear that our offer of help will be rejected.

  • Reluctance to subject ourselves to greater pain by opening ourselves up to someone else's intense suffering.

  • Fear of saying something wrong and "making things worse".

Learning some basic tools can help us overcome these anxieties.

Establish eye contact.

That is the first thing to do in every encounter. Eye contact opens the door through which we all communicate. If you are talking to a child, then by all means get down to his level. If you are looking down on him you will still be saying, "I am the authority, I am the adult," no matter what words you use.

Introduce yourself and begin to establish rapport.

Listen, maintaining eye contact, nodding your head to show that the person has your full attention. Ignore everything else that is going on around you. He needs to feel that he is the most important thing in the world to you right now. One person I know makes a big show of shutting off his cell phone before beginning the conversation.

Rephrase and reflect.

David was talking to Lior (the social worker), describing what he had seen, It was like something out of Scream (a horror movie)." "It probably seemed unreal and frightening," she replied. "No," he answered, eagerly correcting her. "Not frightening. But unreal, yes, as if I was outside watching..."

Rephrasing and reflecting accomplishes two things. It clarifies what the person really means, and more importantly, it conveys your interest and empathy.

The survivor often displays non-verbal signals that you can pick up on, such as clenched fists, arms wrapped around himself, etc. But since you may be off, you can say, "You seem really angry (distraught, frightened). Am I right?" You are not making a statement, you are asking for a clarification. If you are right, then the person may open up to you more, and may honestly examine his feelings. If not, at least you have again shown your concern — and your attention.

Allow Silence.

We are all a bit afraid of silence. As discussed in the chapter on shiva, there are tools we can use when the silence begins to grow heavy and no one knows what to say. But as strange as it may seem, there is a place for silence within any communication relationship

Leave Your Baggage at Home

While these basic techniques are helpful, we should also be aware of our own personal responses to certain situations. We have to be totally aware of ourselves and our own baggage and not allow our "selves" to become involved with the relationship — even if it doesn't last more then a few minutes.

Rose, who as child during the Holocaust, had been separated from her parents, struck up a conversation with a young mother who was expressing her dread of allowing her daughter to go the neighborhood park to play. Rose's initial reaction was to agree with her, "You should never let your child out of your sight." She later realized that it was her own fears that were surfacing and that she wasn't relating to the real issue of the actual danger to her children.

The tools of good listening can be adapted to almost everything we do. It can come into play in the office when a colleague is confiding a problem with the boss, or at home when a child comes to us with a personal problem. Good listening is, of course, not limited to disasters. Yet it is in acute crisis situations that this skill is desperately needed.

Accept His Reality

The essence of good listening is to accept whatever we're told as that person's truth. It makes no difference if it jibes with our perception of reality. For that moment, for that second that we are let into his world of feelings, we must accept it as is. Telling a victim that "it's not so bad," or "it could be worse," is not very helpful, to say the least.

Although Karen wasn't seriously injured in a terror attack, she bled heavily from a head wound. She began mumbling, "I am going to die; I am going to die..." A knee jerk response would be to reassure her that she isn't going to die. But this would not deal with her real problem — her fear of death. Someone who understood this would reply, "Karen (the first thing to do is to ask the person's name), are you afraid that you are dying?" When her response comes back in the affirmative, he can reassure her that she only has a head wound and that loss of blood is very common in such cases. If the response is negative — "No, I'm not" — then he can agree with her and say, "You're right; you only have a head wound..."

Never be Judgmental

You are talking to a friend who confides that he can't cope without a drink or two every day. Lecturing him about the "evils" of alcohol abuse will simply alienate him and he won't confide in you so quickly again. But telling him, Boy, it must be hard to get through the day," will allow him to open up to you, relieved that you "understand". This doesn't mean that you are giving your blessing to his drinking — no one asked you for it. You are there as a friend. If he asks, "What should I do?" he's signaling that his drinking troubles him. This is a perfect opportunity for you to say that at some time in our lives we all need professional help.

What are people looking for when they talk to you? For the most part, they want to be reassured that they are normal. After any disaster, people are going to experience symptoms that would not be considered normal in ordinary circumstances. They will be frightened and need support.

What if Someone "Loses It" in the Middle of a Conversation?

Crying and expressing grief and anger are healthy parts of venting. It is far worse if a person does not cry or cannot show anger. As with silence, it is our reaction that needs to be examined. We may feel embarrassed by a stranger's release of raw emotions, and believe that feelings should be kept private. In that case, we are projecting our definition of acceptable behavior onto the person.

Many of us may feel a bit overcome by the display of emotions. Breathe deeply and wait. Just holding a hand may be enough until they can compose themselves. Often it is not necessary to say anything. If you feel comfortable you may assure the person that it is perfectly acceptable and normal for him to react this way.

Finally, after he is calm, reassure him that although it might seem unlikely now, he will feel better. His life will never be the same again, but it will get better.