Our beliefs about ourselves, other people and our world help us to make sense of our experiences and the world around us. We build our beliefs through our own experiences or inherit them from our family or culture. Unless challenged, we are often not even aware of them. They simply appear to us as just ‘normal’, or the way things are.
Violence changes things. We can feel overwhelmed when we experience something shockingly different from the way we normally see ourselves or the world around us. Perhaps our life was in danger or we were the victim of another’s violence, or we found ourselves doing something that went against our normal beliefs, values and behaviour. This can lead us to question ourselves – why did that happen, or why did we act in that way? We may question our faith and our understanding of God. Distressing events that shatter the way we see ourselves and our world are said to be traumatic.
When we experience something traumatic, we can feel completely out of control and struggle to make sense of the chaos. Feelings of fear, helplessness, or horror are normal reactions to an abnormal situation, and not a sign of weakness. We need to acknowledge these feelings. Talking about our experiences can help us to make sense of them. Most people who experience a traumatic event need support and understanding from those around them to help them recover.
A good way to support someone’s healing process is to be an active listener. Many people rarely experience this sort of listening and it can be a great source of healing. You do not need to be a professional counsellor to listen effectively. The following are some key skills for active listening.
Finding a safe place
First, it is important to help the person relax and feel safe with you. You cannot assume that a person who has experienced a distressing event will feel safe and you may have to earn their trust. People need to know that they can speak about sensitive issues in confidence.
- Find somewhere comfortable where you can talk without interruptions such as phone calls or visitors.
- Agree a level of confidentiality at the start, so that what is said is not passed on to anyone else, unless it is a situation where either the person themselves or others would be at risk. This is particularly important when working with children. Make it clear from the start that you cannot promise confidentiality if they tell you about child abuse. For more information about child protection, go to www.keepingchildrensafe.org.uk
- Most people will find it easier to talk openly with someone of the same sex.
People will share their experience only if and when they feel ready to do so. This can take time, and it is important that people are never forced into talking about distressing issues. As active listeners, we need to be patient and respect the other person.
- Do not ask too many questions. Use questions to check that you have understood correctly, rather than to push for more information.
- When listening, let the other person guide the content and pace of what they want to share.
- When some people try to share their experience, they may find it difficult to describe what has happened. As an active listener, it is enough to sit with them and share the silence.
- Your own experience may or may not be helpful to share. Don’t rush in with your story or your opinions. This is not about you.
As an active listener, do not take on the role of expert, advisor, teacher, rescuer or fixer. Focus instead on trying to understand the other person’s experience and feelings. Because we all have our own ways of thinking and feeling, each person will experience a traumatic event differently. We cannot really understand what it was like for the other person unless we can first put aside our own feelings and experience. We need to be fully attentive and willing to listen to their unique experience.
Pay attention to the person’s emotional response as well as the story of their experience. Think about the whole person:
- What feelings do they express?
- language and facial expression – do they look relaxed, tense, afraid, happy, disgusted?
- Voice – do they speak quietly and nervously, or confidently? Quickly or slowly? Are there silences?
You may wish to summarise in a few words some of what you hear (the feelings as well as the story), just to check that you have understood it.
The final important attitude for healing is acceptance. By offering unconditional acceptance to another person, we show that we are willing to try to understand their experience. This means that we are willing to accept all their emotional responses, even when they are uncomfortable for us, such as confusion, resentment, fear, anger, or despair. Even if we cannot understand or agree with their attitudes or behaviour, we may be able to accept them as another human being who is made in the image of God. Acceptance relies on us offering grace to another person instead of judging them, just as God offers grace to us. This may be especially difficult if they have been involved in carrying out acts of violence themselves.
This special kind of listening can be difficult to do, but is a powerful source of healing for those who have experienced a traumatic event.
Angus Murray is a professional counsellor and also works for Tearfund as Regional Conflict Policy Officer for Sudan.
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Know your limits
- Sometimes the experiences people share may be very shocking or distressing to hear. It is wisdom, not weakness, to recognise and admit our limits. This includes time limits.
- Make sure you are emotionally strong and stable enough to be able to listen to another’s hurt. You also need to have your own support network of family and friends.
- It is important to know when further help is needed, and work with the person to find it. Except in cases of child abuse, you should always ask their permission to share what they have told you.