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listening when someone is distressed

Holding Space and Listening Loudly When Someone is Distressed

By Tasha Broomhall

In times of stress and anxiety people react in different ways. Some may prefer to process their feelings internally, whereas others look outwardly for support. When someone shares a problem with us, many of us jump in with solutions or look for silver linings. If the person does share information with us about what they’re experiencing, how we listen and offer support is critical.

Listening When Someone Is Distressed

Hearing someone’s bad news may feel distressing and uncomfortable. We want to reassure them. It’s tempting to want to make them feel better about the situation so we might try to rush them to a resolution; we want to tell them it’ll be ok; that this is an opportunity in disguise.

This can risk the person not feeling heard; their reaction not being validated. In doing so, we risk disconnecting with them at a time they may need our support most. Before opportunities can be seen to arise out of a challenging situation, there are many emotions to be processed, possibly grief, anxiety, panic, worry, distress.

Simple Four-Step Process

To help support someone, instead of glossing over their emotional reaction or rushing them towards feeling positive, this simple four-step process can help us to communicate more effectively:

1. Acknowledge

We need to acknowledge that their reaction (fear, sadness, rejection, etc.) is real for them. Acknowledge that their reaction is true and valid. Hear it. Don’t try to tell them they’re over-reacting or that it’s not that bad. You can’t control how someone else feels.

2. Express Empathy

Express empathy for their feelings. Tell them you are sorry for their distress; or sorry they are sad; that you are sorry they are feeling overwhelmed. You are not telling them they are right or wrong for how they feel, simply empathising that how they feel is real for them and therefore important.

3. Explore Options

Allow the time for them to explore the options which suit them. Encourage them not to make rash decisions though bear in mind that some pragmatics might be worth considering. Some people will need support with the pragmatics of what to do immediately.

When they are ready to explore their options for moving forward, hold that space with them and discuss a range of possibilities. Consider the pros and cons of each option. If they are struggling to identify any for themselves, consider offering three options you can identify and see what, if anything, resonates for them.

4. Plan For Action

When they are ready to test out some of the options, plan for action with them. They may or may not need your support with this. Engage as appropriate for the boundaries of your relationship, respecting their decisions.

This approach is about being respectful and acknowledging the individual; allowing them to go through the emotions they are feeling and work through their options in their own time and way; offering support where you can.

Our goal is to connect with people and connect them with supports. When we listen to people our goal is to listen and validate that what they’re experiencing is real for them, and to do with them, not do to them.

This is an edited extract from the book Bloom! at Work, by Tasha Broomhall. The book is available for purchase here.

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Image credit: Joshua Ness (Unsplash).

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