How to Listen to Someone Talk About Their Trauma
Updated: Oct 16, 2021
After writing the blog post, “How to Tell a Loved One About Your Trauma,” this felt like a good topic to cover.
The first thing I want you to remember, when someone tells you that they want to talk to you about their trauma, is that their needs do not negate your own needs. If you cannot handle hearing about their trauma right now, you are allowed to take care of yourself and tell the individual who wants to talk to you that you are unable to listen to them at this time. Having this talk only when you are able to listen is the best thing for both of the people involved in the conversation.
Now, if you feel you are able to listen to your loved one, one of the most important things to keep in mind is that everyone is unique and therefore, their needs will vary. Some tips may not work for everyone and that’s okay. Usually the best thing to do is to ask the person what they need.
Try to give the person your undivided attention. Avoid looking at your watch or phone if you can. If you know you’re going to be too distracted to properly listen (for instance, because you have an important test in an hour) or going to be pulled away soon (such as because you’re expecting a phone call you can’t miss), let your loved one know as early as possible. Make sure they understand that you’re there for them, and ready to listen, but this might not be the best time for it.
Make sure to give the person space to talk about their trauma. Try not to interrupt them or put pressure on them. When someone is trying to talk to you about hard things, it is very reasonable that they may struggle. If they have not told you what support they need during these times, it’s okay to ask. It’s possible they need you to sit quietly, without pressure, while they collect their thoughts. On the other hand, they might need words of encouragement and validation. If they have not communicated with you about what they need, please ask them instead of assuming.
You might want to reassure them that their reactions are normal and understandable, especially if they minimize the events with such statements as “I’m making way too big a deal of this,” or “I know a lot of people have been through worse things, I’m such a baby.” One thing in particular you should try to avoid is letting what they tell you upset you too much. While you don’t want to seem cold and unfeeling, you also don’t want to get so sad that your loved one feels like they need to comfort and support you rather than receiving your support.
Don’t make assumptions of what you think the person might be feeling or judgments of how you think they should be feeling. Allow them to talk to you about their feelings and remember that everyone is different and there’s no right way to feel after a trauma. They may feel angry, sad, confused or many other things, or they might not be feeling anything at all. Numbness is a normal response and it may be the case that they cycle through all these feelings and more.
If someone doesn’t want to share more, don’t put pressure on them. If you have questions, it might be best to first ask your loved one if they’re okay with giving you more information about something. If they say “yes”, remember that they are not obligated to give you any particular details you might want to know. They are within their rights to decide huge subject areas are off limits, even if they have no reason besides that they are not comfortable talking about them.
If someone is talking to you about a recent assault, it is important that you do not pressure them to report it to authorities or anyone else. They have shown a level of trust in telling you about this trauma, and you can make it harder for them to feel comfortable with you if you push them. If they are not reporting the attack to authorities or telling someone else who you might have expected them to tell, such as parents, they almost certainly have considered it and have a reason or reasons for not doing so. You also do not have a right to know that reason or reasons. Instead of trying to press them into doing something they are not doing, offer your support regardless of what they do. One of the best things to say is “I believe you.” This, in a lot of cases, will feel like a weight lifting off to the other person. Offer reassurance and validation if you can.
When you are trying to think of things to say in order to make your loved one feel better, your first instinct may be some kind of easy, positive message. Try to stay away from toxic positivity, which can include things like “everything happens for a reason,” or “look on the bright side.” Instead use statements like “I’m here for you”. Try to stick with things that validate their emotions instead of downplaying them, like “that sounds really hard. What you’re feeling about it is valid.”
If your loved one is unsure how you can support them, here are a few suggestions: Make sure they know you’re there for them and ready to listen again if they need to talk more. Make sure they know you aren’t expecting them to be “all better” after a short time. If they have not talked about their trauma to a therapist, do not insist they need a professional to help them. Try not to take any emotional outbursts they have personally, as trauma can create a state where a person has reactions that are often not really about the current event that seems to cause them. This does not mean that you have to be an emotional punching bag for them, however - there is a fine line between “outbursts” and “taking things out on you.” If at any time it seems like too much for you, you always have the right to talk to them about it or simply walk away. While it is good to help your loved one, your first duty of care is to yourself. Offer practical support. For example, you could offer to do some housework for them, or cook them a few meals. Above all, try to make sure they know that you will not judge them and will support them in any difficult decisions they have to make.
At the end of the day, the most important thing about supporting a person is to ask the person what they need or what support they would like, and avoid assuming they need something without actually talking to them about it (and please remember, that you are not obligated to give anything you aren’t able/ready to do.).