Probably the number one question I hear from people who want to care for a grieving friend, co-worker or family member is,“What can I do?” We want to be a part of the solution by helping them on their grief journey. Yet, we have heard (and maybe even experienced ourselves) embarrassing stories of people who have inadvertently done or said the wrong thing – adding to the problem instead of helping.
So because we don’t know what to say or do, or because we’re afraid to say or do the wrong thing, we often do something that is even worse…NOTHING. We just don’t say anything. We don’t do anything. Which, in many cases, exacerbates the grief of the individual because they feel alone in their grief or become angry that “nobody cares.” So let me share with you a wonderful gift that you can give those who are grieving. It is called “Active Listening.”
Active listening is a simply yet powerful communication technique where the listener reflects their understanding of what they are hearing back to the speaker. It is not passive – where you sit there and never say anything; and it is not active “talking” where you control the conversation. Rather, it is engaging the one grieving and letting them control the conversation, letting them take the lead, and letting them educate you about their own unique grief journey.
So with that in mind, here are some quick pointers on how to be a good active listener (and therefore a good grief companion):
- Listen with your eyes –In other words, what are they communicating with their non-verbal body language? Watch for the frown of the brow, the clench of the fist, the pursing of the lips, the rapid tapping of the foot, the tightening of the jaw, and even the glimmer in the eyes. This can really clue you in to what emotions are stirring inside of the griever.
- Listen with Your mind – To do so, you must zero your attention in on the one who is speaking. This especially means that you focus on what is being said and not formulating in your mind what you are going to say next. What needs to be said by you will flow naturally enough. What is needed in the moment is for you to remove all mental distractions and grasp fully what is being said.
- Listen with your heart – Listening with your heart is not imagining what you would be feeling if you were in their shoes. That would be making assumptions about how they feel. Rather, listening with your heart means looking deeper than just the words and discovering the emotions behind the words. For example, anger is not a primary emotion. Rather it flows from a host of other emotions. So with your heart, you look deeper than just the angry words and try to discover what emotions are feeding their anger. Maybe they are feeling threatened and unsafe. Maybe they are experiencing anxiety. Maybe their pride has been hurt. Maybe they feel misunderstood. There are a whole host of emotions that are beneath the anger feeding it with fire. To be a good active listener, we must discover the real emotions behind the words, not just the words themselves.
- Listen with your intuition – This is closely akin to listening with your heart, but just enough different that I separated the two. Listening with your intuition will sometimes help you to recognize discrepancies between what is being said and what is being communicated. For example, I remember one griever who told me she was doing well after the death of her husband, but couldn’t sit still. Without notice, in the middle of the conversation, she would get up and go into the other room to do something and then would come back, fidget around in her chair and then be up again. My intuition told me that even though she said she was “Fine” that she wasn’t as fine as she said. So I kept checking in with her and lo and behold there was something that wasn’t fine within her. Regret was eating away at her, something I never would have found out if I had taken her words at face value.
- Listen with your spirit – For those of you who consider yourselves spiritual, I would encourage you to engage your spiritual side as you listen. For me, I find it helpful before every conversation I have with someone who is grieving to say a prayer asking God to help me to accurately hear what is being said and to communicate what He wants me to communicate. In my opinion, the Spirit of God often brings things to mind that I would have never thought of without Him.
- Listen with your mouth…closed – Now don’t get me wrong, there is a time to speak, but there is also a time to be quiet. It is not a time to interrupt even if you have heard it all before…even if they are the ones who have told you it all before. It is a time to be patient, even if you know what they are going to say next. Let them say it. They need to say it more than you need to hear it.
- Listen with your voice box – It sounds contradictory because I just got done telling you to shut it and now I am telling you that you need to open it, but I think you will understand the distinction. What I mean by listening with your voice box is that you need to be verbally engaged in the conversation as if you were an investigative reporter. Throughout the conversation, you want to first encourage the conversation to continue and second clarify what is being said. So to encourage the conversation, you will use your voice box to say things like, “I see” or “I hear you” or even “Uh huh” so that they know that you are listening to what they have to say and not thinking through your grocery list. Likewise, you need to ask clarifying questions when you don’t “see” or understand what they are saying. For example, you might say, “When you said ______, did you mean ___________?” or even “Let me make sure I understood what you said.” Then rephrase what they just said in your own words.
Active listening is not just a wonderful tool to help grieving people say what they need to say out loud, it is a beautiful way to communicate day to day.
Just remember, it’s not you and your experiences and your education and your expertise that matter the most in the conversation. It’s all about them and their need to verbalize the grief that is stirring inside of them. By sharing it on the outside, they are mourning their grief and therefore taking one more step toward putting together the pieces of their lives shattered by death.