The Power of Listening: Helping Someone Through A Difficult Time

by Tess on June 9, 2011

Listen to Your Mother - LA

This is a guest post, from Harriet Cabelly, a life coach and blogger at  Rebuild Your Life Coach. 

It’s often hard to know what to say to a friend or loved one during his/her trying times.  We don’t know the ‘right’ words. 

We are uncomfortable with their pain.  We feel helpless.   And it certainly brings up our own vulnerabilities. 

But we cannot ignore a painful situation by saying nothing, for that can make someone feel worse.   Having been through my own share of some pretty heavy-duty times, I always appreciated when someone at least acknowledged the difficult time by saying a little something like:

“How are you doing since…..”

“I’m so sorry” or

“I don’t know what to say.” 

For even saying this beats saying nothing at all.  Some acknowledgement at least shows a connection to a person’s difficulties. 

We can be attuned to the other by simply asking:

How can I be here for you?

What can I do for you?

How can I help?

What do you need from me now?

But the best support we can give is by simply listening.  ‘Simply’ is the operative word here.  The act of listening is no simple task.  It requires focus and the ability to put oneself aside.  It takes work to really listen. 

“Listening looks easy, but it’s not simple.  Every head is a world.” Cuban Proverb

So how do we ‘simply’ listen?

  1. Sometimes we listen by sitting in silence with the other; just being with them in their pain. We are there with them in mind, body and soul, holding and tolerating the heaviness of their suffering.

“Silence is a source of great strength.” Lao Tzu

  1. Be the vessel into which the person can pour out his pain.  Hold it.  Hear the feelings behind the words.  Connect with that.

“You can practice deep listening in order to relieve the suffering in us and in the other person.  That kind of listening is described as compassionate listening.  You listen only for the purpose of relieving suffering in the other person.”  Thich Nhat Hanh

  1. It’s about them. Don’t wait for the period at the end of their sentence so that you can jump in with your agenda or personal examples.  Let it be all them.  It’s not a give and take conversation during such times.

In the book, The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, the narrator dog says, “I never deflect  the course of the conversation with a comment of my own.  People, if you pay attention to them, change the direction of one another’s conversations constantly….Pretend you are a dog like me and listen to other people rather than steal their stories.”

4.Reflect back and acknowledge their feelings.  The greatest soothing ointment for the soul is feeling heard and understood.  

“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood.  The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”  Ralph Nichols 

We can’t create magic and make problems disappear.  We can provide the support and comfort that can minimize some of the ‘aloneness’ one feels in his/her time of need, by Listening.       

“If speaking is silver, then listening is gold.” Turkish Proverb 

Harriet Cabelly is a social worker and life coach who blogs at   Rebuild Your Life Coach. Visit her blog to get insights on growing beyond adversity.  Follow her on Twitter.

Are you comfortable listening when someone is in pain? Please share in your comments below.  

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    { 24 comments… read them below or add one }

    Meg June 9, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    Ahhhh, this is spot on. I have lost two loved ones in the last 6 months. My father and my grandfather. It has been a very hard time for me. Sometimes people don’t understand that it helps to talk about it. To talk about my experiences. I try really hard to be a great listener. I know I still need some work. I also know that my boyfriend needs a lot of work in this department too. We need to work on this together. My father used to be the best listener in my life. He would hear you out and then when you were ALL done talking he would give you his feedback, always in a positive way. You can imagine how hard it is not having your number 1 listener. Thanks for this.


    Harriet Cabelly June 9, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    Hi Meg
    Really sorry for your losses. It sounds like your Dad was a wonderful role model, as a great listener. It must be soo “hard not having your number 1 listener.” Hopefully you and your boyfriend are on the track towards improvement in this area, and that he will be able to give you the comfort that good listening provides.
    I wish you the best; and that the memories of your two loved ones will be a source of comfort to you.


    Amanda @ 36broadway June 9, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    Hi Tess! Although I’m great in wallowing in my own dispair, I find myself feeling quite uncomfortable and at a loss for words when I need to comfort someone else. It’s almost like I’m so used to being in pain I’m not sure what to do when anyone else is!

    Thanks for this great advice, I will remind myself it’s not wrong to just sit in silence and listen, even if I don’t have much good advice to give.


    Harriet Cabelly June 9, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    Hi Amanda,
    Great reminder that it is so “not wrong to just sit in silence and listen…” We don’t need to always have the right words; being with the other in sincere presence and caring is a comfort.
    It is very common to feel uncomfortable with someone else’s pain. To recognize that and be honest with oneself is a big step. Next is being with the person despite one’s own discomfort, even if you say nothing.
    All the best.


    Joe @ Shake off the Grind June 9, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    Hi Harriet and Tess,

    This is something I was speaking with my girlfriend about recently. Empathy is so vital to really connect with others. Anyone can validate someone’s feelings and attentively listen, but they may not really care. This is better than nothing, but learning to really care for someone and be compassionate in times of need is not an easy task. If people can develop greater empathy for others, it would have a huge impact on the world.


    Harriet Cabelly June 9, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Hi Joe,
    You are so right about empathy. It is crucial and more of it “would have a huge impact on the world.”
    But I also think we could all be better in the area of listening. It is not an easy skill to be able to really take in what someone else is saying without our own need to jump in.
    Thank you for your important comment – Caring, Compassion and Empathy are hugely needed and not always easy to give.


    Melody | Deliberate Receiving June 10, 2011 at 2:28 am

    Hi Harriet,
    I couldn’t agree more. Often the most compassionate thing we can do is listen. Also, I don’t think we can underestimate the power of a simple hug.

    Hugs (whether you need them or not…),
    Melody :)
    Melody | Deliberate Receiving´s last post…The Truth about Drug and other AddictionsMy ComLuv Profile


    Harriet Cabelly June 10, 2011 at 3:31 am

    Hi Melody,
    Hugs – Yes!! Like the great picture that Tess put in above with this post.
    Listening, being compassionate and Hugs – all the good stuff to help our ‘livingkind’.
    Thank you for your powerful reminder.


    suzen June 10, 2011 at 7:08 am

    Hi Peggy! Great words of wisdom – we probably all need a reminder of how to “be” there for people in pain. I think sometimes the tendency is to try and fix things with a sort of nervous conversation – again, spot on about how uncomfortable it can be to listen! Simply remember, presence (presents) is a gift!


    suzen June 10, 2011 at 7:10 am

    Whoops – the biggest faux pas of all – haven’t had enough coffee yet TESS and good lord I should know better than to try and whip thru comments before my brain has kicked in! SO sorry!
    Love you!


    Harriet Cabelly June 10, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Hi Suzen,
    Don’t worry about your faux pas. So what if you mixed up names; your comment is great and right-on. We all want to fix things. And when we can’t, I think that nervous helplessness sets in. We don’t know what to say, how to be with a person in pain and are totally uncomfortable with the pain and the person.
    I love that -”presence is a gift”.

    All the best. Hope the coffee did the trick. I’m a tea and hot chocolate person.


    Taz @ Climb the Rainbow June 10, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    Thank you for this. I listen to people talk about their relationships regularly but as much as I try, I have times where I just don’t feel as though I listen well enough to help as much as I want to.

    One other thing I find great for these times is a huge, heart-warming HUG. There’s nothing that says “I care” quite like an all-consuming with your heart right next to someone else’s.


    Harriet Cabelly June 11, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    Hi Taz,
    We all have times when we don’t listen well enough. But as long as we’re on our toes about it and aware, we can do better.
    Yes, hugs are great. I love how you say it – “with your heart right next to someone else’s”. What a nice visual.
    All the best.


    Chris Akins June 10, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    Great post. Two of the most powerful ingredients in helping are: 1. Empathy, and 2. Showing unconditional acceptance (aka positive regard) for the person who is in pain. The only way to do either is to actively listen, without judgment. Unsolicited advice is over-rated.

    Chris Akins´s last post…The paradox of acceptanceMy ComLuv Profile


    Harriet Cabelly June 11, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    Hi Chris,
    Great points. More often than not, the person in pain does not want advice. They just want to be heard and understood, and like you say, empathized with and accepted.
    Thank you.


    David Stevens June 10, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    Hi Harriet,
    We need to Listen before we can Understand. Thank you for this post.
    be good to yourself


    Harriet Cabelly June 11, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    Hi David,
    Yes, listening breeds understanding.
    Thanks for your frequent comments. Always appreciated.


    Tammy June 11, 2011 at 11:47 am

    I so agree with what you are saying. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, the folks that said nothing really disturbed me. I realize that it was because they didn’t know what to say but I wanted them to say that they didn’t know what to say. Silence makes it even harder.
    Tammy´s last post…Pa Rum Pa Pum PumMy ComLuv Profile


    Harriet Cabelly June 11, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    Hi Tammy,
    I so agree that “silence makes it even harder.” And like you say, saying that you don’t know what to say, is better than nothing. At least that shows a connection to you and your situation.
    I hope you’re doing better now.
    All the best.


    Matt June 12, 2011 at 9:22 am

    Great article. As a physical therapist I interact with people of all backgrounds and with all different life experiences. At first I tried to help them by talking too much. Now I realize that they just need someone to listen to them. Thank you for sharing.


    Harriet Cabelly June 12, 2011 at 10:28 am

    Hi Matt,
    It’s all about becoming aware of ourselves and how we ‘use’ ourselves to help people. You obviously became aware and changed your course with your clients, from talker to listener. Sometimes we need to listen hard to hear and understand someone’s needs. You did it.
    All the best.


    Christy June 21, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    It is true then..the more we listen, the more we understand and the greater help we can give. :)
    Christy´s last post…Choose to Live your DreamsMy ComLuv Profile


    Harriet Cabelly June 22, 2011 at 11:55 am

    Hi Christy,
    Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, listening is a powerful helping tool.
    All the best.


    Ann@Shadow Box Gift Company July 19, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    You are so right, the best thing you can do for someone going thru a difficult time is just listen. My husband passed away suddenly when I was only 40 years old. We had been married for over 22 years. When I would bring up his name most people would become uncomfortable so I stopped bringing his name up. A few people would ask me how I was doing and would really listen. Those were the people that got me thru a very difficult time and I am so grateful to have them in my life. You don’t have to say much just be there and listen it means so much to someone going thru a hard time.


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