Whenever people have been impacted by a trauma, even if it has not affected them directly, they need to talk about it in order to feel better. To talk, they need willing listeners. Unfortunately, many of us have difficulties listening to people in distress. We may feel like we have enough going on in our own lives or are afraid of making matters worse by saying the wrong thing.
Sometimes we just do not know what to say. Therefore, we may avoid talking to or listening to people who are hurting. We may also feel that this is strictly a matter for professionals such as psychotherapists or members of the clergy. It is true that professional people, such as your EAP counselors at the Ben Gordon Center, can help in special ways and provide the individual with insights that most of us are not able to offer.
There is no substitute for the caring interest of supervisors, co-workers, friends and others from the person’s normal daily life.
It is natural to feel reluctant or even afraid of facing another person’s painful feelings. But it is important not to let this fear prevent us from doing what we can to help someone who is having difficulties coping. Although each situation is unique, here are some tips that can help make the process easier:
- The most important thing to do is simply to be there and listen and show you care.
- Find a private setting where you will not be overheard or interrupted. Arrange things so that there are no large objects, such as a desk, between you and the person.
- Keep your comments brief and simple so that you do not get the person off track.
Ask questions which show your interest and encourage the person to keep talking, for example:
- “What are you feeling about this event?”
- “Do you have any concerns about our workplace?”
- Give verbal and nonverbal messages of caring and support. Facial expressions and body posture go a long way toward showing your interest. Do not hesitate to interject your own feelings as appropriate, for example:
- “What a terrible event.”
- “I’m so sorry it happened as well.”
- Let people know that it’s OK to cry. Some people are embarrassed if they cry in front of others. Handing over a box of tissues in a matter-of-fact way can help show that tears are normal and appropriate. It’s also OK if you get a bit teary yourself.
- Don’t be distressed by differences in the way people respond. One person may react very calmly, while another expresses strong feelings. One person may have an immediate emotional response; another may be “numb” at first and respond emotionally later. Emotions are rarely simple; people who are suffering often feel anger along with grief. Unless you see signs of actual danger, simply accept the feelings as that person’s natural response at the moment. If a person is usually rational and sensible, those qualities will return once their painful feelings are expressed.
- Don’t offer unsolicited advice. People usually will ask for advice later if they need it; initially it just gets in the way of talking things out.
- Don’t turn the conversation into a forum for your own experiences. If you have had a similar experience, you may want to mention that briefly when the moment seems right. But do not say, “I know exactly how you feel,” because everybody is different.
- It’s natural to worry about saying the “wrong thing.” The following is a brief but helpful list of things not to say to someone who is suffering: Do not say:
- “You shouldn’t take it so hard.”
- “You’re overreacting.”
- “It could be a lot worse.”
- “You’re young; you’ll get over it.”
- “You have to pull yourself together.”
The most important thing is to be there and listen in a caring way. People will understand if you say something awkward in a difficult situation.
Once you have finished talking, it may be appropriate to offer simple forms of help. Sharing a meal may help the person find an appetite or giving a ride to someone too upset to drive may mean a lot. Ask what else you can do to be of assistance. Provide them with our EAP information and phone number to call in case they want to talk further.
Tell them that the company has contracted with the Ben Gordon Center for EAP services and that these services are there to help. What about Me? After you have talked to someone who is hurting, you may feel as if you have absorbed some of that person’s pain. Remember the EAP is there for you, too! Take care of yourself by talking to a friend, taking a walk or doing whatever helps restore your own spirits. And be sure to congratulate yourself on having had the courage to help someone in need when it was not easy.