Most people are worried about what they will say to someone who has suffered the loss of a loved one. The truth is their listening skills may be far more important. Listening is a critical component in expressing condolences because it gives the grieving individual the permission to express the things on their heart. The ability to listen attentively to what the grieving person is saying may be significant in assisting the healing process.

Listening is a Difficult Skill to Learn

While listening is an important part of expressing condolences, most studies show that very few of us are good listeners. One reason for poor listening is that the mind wanders. Most people speak at about 130 words a minute, though for a grieving person it might be much less. The mind thinks at about 1,000 words a minute. The mind is going to fill in that large gap.

Another reason that we aren’t good listeners is that when someone shares a problem, we immediately start trying to offer the person a solution. If the one grieving says that he is feeling depressed, our mind begins to process suggestions that the person can try to lessen the depression. We don’t listen well because we have already begun to think about what we will say in response.

Truthfully, most of us have never been taught how to listen. Courses are readily available for reading, writing and speaking, but few classes are offered to teach listening skills. For the one grieving, someone who will take the time to listen, to acknowledge the loss of the loved one, and to offer reassurance that the deceased will not be forgotten is an invaluable tool in the healing process.

Ways to Improve Your Listening

Here are two simple things that anyone can do immediately to improve their listening skills.

First, listen with your whole body, not just your ears. If you are sitting, lean on the edge of your seat. If you are at a table, lean your elbows on the table toward the speaker. If you are standing, keep your body open. Do not cross your arms. Do everything you can to give the appearance that you are approachable and ready to listen to their words.

Next, look for opportunities in the conversation to repeat or paraphrase what the speaker has said to you. Instead of being ready to offer your thoughts, repeat the thoughts of the speaker in your own words. This allows the person to know that you are listening and gives an opportunity to correct any misunderstandings.

Helpful suggestions for better listening to a person grieving:

  • Accept and acknowledge the feelings the grieving person expresses. Let the grieving person know that it’s alright to express deep feelings: to cry in front of you, to get angry, or to break down. Don’t try to reason with him or her over how he or she should or should not feel. Don’t try to help them through the feelings. The bereaved should feel free to express his or her feelings without fear of judgment, argument, or criticism.
  • Listen empathetically.  Ralph G. Nichols, retired professor of rhetoric at the University of Minnesota, offers some ways to build listening skills in his book Are You Listening? One way is to anticipate the speaker’s next point. If you anticipate correctly, learning has been reinforced. If you anticipate incorrectly, you wonder why and this too helps to increase attention. Such an approach encourages the individual to listen empathetically. What would I be feeling? What emotions would be stirring? What memories would be flooding my spirit? What would I likely say next?
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. Don’t press if the grieving person doesn’t feel like talking. You can offer comfort and support with your silent presence. If you can’t think of something to say, just offer eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a reassuring hug.
  • Ask questions, but don’t force the conversation. While you should never try to force someone to open up, it’s important to let the bereaved know he or she has permission to talk about the loss. Talk candidly about the person who died. Don’t feel you need to avoid the subject if the deceased’s name comes up. When it seems appropriate, ask sensitive questions—without being nosy—that invite the grieving person to openly express his or her feelings. You might begin by simply asking, “Do you feel like talking?”
  • Let the bereaved talk about how his or her loved one died. It is not easy to listen to the details of how someone has died, but many grieving individuals need to verbally communicate the process to someone. If you are the one trusted with such raw emotion, take it as an honor and be ready to listen carefully to the detail.  People who are grieving may need to tell the story over and over again, sometimes in minute detail. Be patient. Repeating the story is a way of processing and accepting the death. With each retelling, the pain lessens.
  • Show you are listening by paraphrasing what the grieving person has said. Tell the bereaved that what he or she is feeling is okay. Respond specifically to the words you have heard. If you’ve gone through a similar loss, share your own experience if you think it would help. Stay away from giving advice, claiming to know what the person is feeling, or comparing your grief to his or hers. Say something like, “I hear you expressing frustration at so many details that you have to take care of. I think that would be a very normal response to what you are going through.”