Do you feel isolated in silence?
Often, very few people back home have the emotional strength to listen to veterans talk about what they went through. You may be struggling with your loved one’s inability to connect with you – it’s very likely as frustrating for them as it is for you. This dynamic is common, in part, because veterans have bad experiences with people who are poor listeners. They have learned that it’s often easier not to upset others with harsh realities of their combat experience. Even when you express interest, your veteran may stay quiet; too many times they’ve opened up and alienated the very people that ask.
At the same time, some civilians are dealing with feelings about NOT being a vet. Feeling painfully excluded (“How come they went and I didn’t?”) from something so large in a loved one’s life can make someone a guarded listener. And strong feelings about conflict situations can create a situation where the “listener” is merely waiting their turn, or – even worse -interrupting the veteran to verbalize their point of view about conflict. So, before conversations even begin lots of feelings are generated. The situation begins with a charged atmosphere that can go downhill quickly.
If this sounds familiar to you, there is hope
People who have highly distressing experiences will, over time, talk with a good listener who will take time to hear the whole story. It may take time for them to learn to trust you, here is how to comfort them with consistent experience of your ability to truly listen.
If you are willing to listen to veterans speak truthfully about all of their experiences, here are 5 tips to help them share their story:
- Are you ready? Don’t ask about a person’s experience unless you can handle honest answers. When Vietnam combat veterans returned home, they found that very few people had the emotional strength to listen to their stories. Don’t let someone open up only to “chicken out” when the story gets rough.
- Give the person time. Researchers working with Vietnam veterans found that the average person could listen fully for only several minutes. When a veteran is willing to talk to you, it is important to allow him or her plenty of time to talk. Don’t interrupt to state your feelings about the war. Plan to listen as long as needed.
- Be an active listener. Ask about feelings. Ask questions when you feel puzzled about facts or incidents.
- Remain quiet if he or she starts crying. Don’t suggest a better way to look at it. Leave his or her thoughts and feelings alone. Your quiet presence is more useful than anything else.
- Listen with empathy, but minimize sympathy. Survivors of traumatic experiences talk more easily to a person with calm concern. Don’t make the veteran have to handle your emotional reactions as well as his or her own. If you need emotional support, seek it elsewhere.