by Seth Eisenberg
When someone you love has experienced a traumatic event, listening is much more important than talking.
Soldiers returning from war are less likely to suffer long-term implications of combat related stress when they can confide in a trusted friend or family member. For returning veterans, strong marriages and families also rank at the top of the list of vital resources to help them overcome traumatic events.
Whether trauma emerges from the battlefield, classroom, playground, office, Internet, or anyplace else, helping loved ones release emotions stored up after stressful, painful events is a skill that should be as widely known as CPR.
News reports of young people taking their own lives in the face of bullying and soldiers returning safely home from the front lines of war and then killing themselves or others are cries for help that call out to each of us.
Celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres and now President Obama are generously contributing to the “It Gets Better” project on YouTube to speak encouraging words directly to embattled teens who in the face of taunting and ridicule may not realize there’s a future beyond high school. Columnist Dan Savage launched “It Gets Better” in September following the suicide of Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old who reportedly suffered homophobic harassment at Indiana’s Greensburg High School.
While kind, compassionate words may be appreciated by people who are thinking rationally, traumatic experiences often lead victims to get stuck in the part of the brain where they are much more likely to fight, flee or freeze long before listening to heartfelt expressions of encouragement. What youngsters and adults alike most often need to help them begin healing from traumatic experiences is not being talked to, but being listened to, heard, and understood.
Emptying the Emotional Jug
Leading marriage education and relationship skills training programs for teens and adults include an exercise called Emptying the Emotional Jug that has been helpful for military families, youngsters impacted by highly stressful events such as bullying, and many others. If you know someone who is bottling up emotions that may be on the verge of exploding inwardly or outwardly, offering to listen to them empty their emotional jug may be a life-saving experience.
Begin by sitting together free of distractions where you can be fully present to each other, look into their eyes, and, if appropriate for the situation and relationship, hold hands. Be sure you have privacy and that from the outset, the person you’re doing this with knows they can trust you not to repeat or even bring up later anything shared during the exercise unless they want to.
When you’re both ready, ask the Speaker, “What are you mad about?” Whatever is shared, just listen with empathy, imagining what it would be like to be the person you’re listening to. After they share, say thank you or show appreciation by gently squeezing their hand or perhaps a hug, and then ask, “What else are you mad about?” Continue this process until the Speaker says there’s nothing else they’re mad about. Then ask, “If you were mad about anything else, what would it be?” Again, remember to frequently show appreciation to the Speaker for sharing. No matter what is shared, do not get into a conversation; do not tell the Speaker not to feel what they feel; do not try to offer solutions. Just listen.
Then ask, “What are you sad about?” Following the same rules, continue just listening, showing appreciation, and asking, “What else are you sad about?” When the Speaker says there’s nothing else they’re sad about, ask, “If you were sad about anything else, what would it be?” Show appreciation.
Next, ask, “What are you scared about?” As with the first two steps, continue asking, listening and showing appreciation. When the Speaker says there’s nothing else they’re scared about, ask, “If you were scared about anything else, what would it be?” Again, be very generous and sincere with your appreciations.
Finally, ask, “What are you glad about?” Continue listening, asking, and sharing appreciation until the Speaker has expressed many of the things they’re glad about. Then ask, “Is there anything else you’d like to share that you’re glad about?”
As you’ll see from doing this exercise, rarely are emotions themselves the problem for people who have experienced traumatic or highly stressful situations. The feelings are very normal reactions to the situations they’ve endured. Negative emotions can become destructive when they’re locked inside without the opportunity for expression to someone who listens with empathy.
Parents have been very grateful for the positive results they’ve seen from listening to their children through this exercise, learning valuable lessons along the way about the power of listening rather than trying to fix, deny, explain or get into a conversation about feelings their kids may be bottling up inside. The same has been true for many spouses, partners, friends, and others who have wanted to help bring relief to people who are important in their lives.
Beyond experiencing a profound sense of closeness and compassion, the exercise is a chance to discover that helping loved ones relieve stress, anxiety, and trauma, the beginning of “It Gets Better,” starts with listening.
P.S. Send us a note about your experience doing this exercise along with your contact information and we’ll mail you two free Emptying the Emotional Jug plastic wallet cards that will help you always keep the steps of this life-saving exercise handy.
Seth Eisenberg is President of the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation, an industry leader in relationship and marriage education.