One problem for many veterans is that very few people back home have the emotional strength to listen to them talk about what they went through. Their feelings of isolation and poor relationships with others are, in part, from having bad experiences with people who are poor listeners.
In his post on PsychologyToday.com, Dr. Sam Osherson says that veterans and civilians need each other.
“Familiar verbal stop signs like, ‘you can’t understand’ or ‘I don’t dare ask’ are too costly for everyone,” Osherson said. “We need to find a way to have a dialogue about what is like to return from war, and what it is like to be a son, a parent, a sibling, a spouse of someone who has been to war.”
People who have highly distressing experiences will usually talk with a good listener who will take time to hear the whole story, according to researchers at the Resiliency Center in Portland. If you are willing to listen to veterans speak truthfully about all of their experiences, here are useful guidelines to follow:
- 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.
- Ask if he or she sees something positive about being in combat. Research shows that those who served in combat became significantly more mature and developed a healthy personal identity. The same extreme circumstances that cause emotional trauma for some people cause others to become stronger.
“Veterans have important—essential—stories to tell. So do their parents, spouses, children, and friends,” Osherson said. “We all need to hear them.”