How to be an Active Listener for Someone in Grief
A quick introduction to ways to companion the bereaved that is part of what our peer counselors do so well, based on the work of Dr. Alan Wolfelt.
Give those in grief your undivided attention. If by phone, go somewhere without any distractions and find small ways to indicate that you are listening and concerned. If on a video call, use eye contact, posture, and your undivided attention. Try to listen more and talk less. By not talking, you can express your concern for their well-being.
Get comfortable with pauses
We instinctively will want to fill a void in a conversation. On the phone, it is especially hard to tell if a silence is needed or not. Often we get wrapped up in what we will say next. Instead, use simple verbal cues that you are engaged in the conversation. A simple “Oh”; “Hm -hm”; or “I see” may be all the response needed. At the same time, you can pause before replying. A simple, let me think on that for a moment before replying can assure that you aren’t (1) interrupting, (2) indicate that you are considering what they are saying, (3) let you soak in what you are hearing and respond thoughtfully.
Reflect back what the person is telling you in a few words with a focus on feelings. In this way, you can test your own understanding, communicate that you are listening, and express your concern. Reflecting what they say can help the other person deepen their own understanding and appreciation of their experience, its meaning, and they may expand on what they’re sharing. Note: Avoid interpreting and adding your own meaning. For many of us, this is hard.
Example: “You said you feel angry. And that you keep a lot of tension in your body.”
Check for understanding
Verify what you are hearing and ask for feedback about the accuracy of your listening. This can keep the conversation focused on the person in grief and helps them feel understood. Examples: “You said ________. Did I hear you correctly?”
“So it seems that _________. Is that right?”
Ask Open-Ended Questions
By asking simple, clarifying and open questions (not informational or yes-no answers) will increase understanding, encourage self-exploration, and leave the bereaved in the driver’s seat of the conversation. Let them pace out how slowly or quickly the conversation progresses.
Example of closed: “How long was your dad sick?”or “Did you visit your dad at the hospital.”
Example of open: “Could you tell me a little bit about your dad’s illness?” and “How did you say goodbye?”
Active listening takes energy and time
Don’t be surprised if doing this type of listening makes you tired. Over the phone, it will take a concerted effort to check your understanding but you also can jot down notes. Over video chat, notes can interfere with eye contact and while there are some physical cues it is harder to pick up on than in-person conversations. Be patient and practice, just like any skill active listening takes time to develop and feel natural. Over time, it will become a tool – something you can rely on when you are supporting another person during grief or some other difficult time.