Be a Good Listener
Suggestions compiled by Jennifer J Freyd
Being a good listener when a friend or loved one discloses a difficult or upsetting experience can be very important. We know that respectful, compassionate, attentive, and authentic listening can be healing, while controlling, blaming, and/or invalidating responding can cause harm.
Some general guidelines
(These suggestions are drawn from research findings-- see for example, Ullman, S. E. and Peter-Hagene, L. (2014), Social Reactions To Sexual Assault Disclosure, Coping, Perceived Control, And Ptsd Symptoms In Sexual Assault Victims. J. Community Psychol., 42: 495–508. doi: 10.1002/jcop.21624. Also see this resource page with links to more research on compelled disclosure: http://dynamic.uoregon.edu/jjf/disclosure/requiredreporting.html.)
- Do not take away the survivor’s autonomy
- Do not invalidate or blame the survivor
- Do respect the survivor's autonomy, validate, and indicate responsibility of violence is with the perpetrator(s)
- Do stay engaged and focused on survivor’s needs
Some more specific suggestions
(These suggestions are drawn from instructions that address listening skills in the moment -- these instructions were used in a study by: Foynes, M.M. & Freyd, J.J. (2011). The Impact of Skills Training on Responses to the Disclosure of Mistreatment. Psychology of Violence, 1, 66-77. The particular wording of these instructions was designed to match a control condition in our study. (See http://dynamic.uoregon.edu/jjf/disclosure/ for the specific experimental and control materials.)
First, it is important to utilize attentive body language.
- Do not make inappropriate facial expressions (Examples: smiling when someone is discussing a sad topic, rolling eyes, raising eyebrows when hearing how someone coped) and do not move your body too much (Examples: excessive fidgeting, playing with cell phone).
- Do sit in a posture (leaning forward or upright) and use gestures that convey engagement (nodding).
- Do maintain consistent, not constant or darting, eye contact (look directly at the person for brief periods of 3-6 seconds, then look away briefly before reconnecting).
Second, it is important to use verbal skills that encourage the speaker to continue.
- Do not change the topic or ask questions that are off-topic. This may seem like a way to decrease your anxiety or make the other person more comfortable, but it often has the opposite effect.
- Do allow silence and convey that you are listening by using encouraging words like “hmmm” and “uh-huh” periodically.
- Do state/name/reflect back the emotion being described. It might also help you to imagine yourself in the speaker’s place and look at the situation from his/her perspective. (Examples: “Wow - sounds like it was scary for you.” “It seems like you feel really sad about that.” “I feel like that must’ve made you angry.”)
- Do ask questions if you are confused, and try to ask questions that require more than one word (Instead of: “Was that scary?” “Do you mean it wasn’t that bad?” Ask questions like: “Could you tell me a little bit more about that?” “What was that like for you?” “What do you mean when you say ____?”)
Third, it is important to use words in a way that convey support.
- Do not reassure the person in a way that might minimize their experience (Examples: “That happened so long ago, maybe it would help to try move on.” “It’s not worth the energy to keep thinking about it.” “Don’t be scared.”)
- Do not make judgments or evaluations about their responses or decisions (Examples: “Couldn’t you do/say ______ instead?” “I don’t think you should worry about it anymore.” “I think it’d be better for you to _____.” “Why don’t you ____?”)
- Do validate the person’s emotions in a genuine tone (Examples: “If that happened to me, I can imagine I’d feel really overwhelmed too.” “Given that experience, it makes sense you’d feel/say/do ________.” “I think many people with that experience would have felt similarly.”)
- Do point out the person’s strengths (Examples: “I’m amazed at how much courage that took.” “You’ve done a great job at keeping everything in perspective.” “I really admire your strength.” “I’m impressed with how you’ve dealt with this.”)
- Do focus on their experience rather than your own and only give advice when it is requested.