Listening and Getting Beyond Bad

One of the goals of EverybodysFamilyTM is to share the experience and insight gained from working successfully for many years with trauma victims.  This blog is really two lessons, but they are closely related and it works well to consider them together.  There are insights and tips for anyone trying to help a child or victim communicate, but I especially hope that attorneys, prosecutors, and victim advocates will use the pieces to get to know the client, the problem, and the issues faced by victims.

1) The challenges to simple listening


I know that I am a good listener, but, honestly, I find allowing children to communicate freely to me is very challenging.  As a parent or an attorney/advocate, when I am encouraging/letting children tell me about how they feel, I face big challenges. First, sometimes kids say things that are difficult for an adult and/or attorney to hear without responding. They are children. They are learning to think, to communicate, to speak the language. They say all sorts of weird things.  Second, I have been bombarded by messages about how to control my children from the time they were born. Control how they sleep, control how and what and when they eat, control how they play… etc., etc.  This is not to say that I did or tried to do any of these things, but no one was encouraging me to allow nature to take its course (at least not as loudly as the control advocates).  Third, I am the sort of person that feels I must offer to help/problem solve. Let that speak for my own mental health issues as it might.  It is who I am, and I know I am not alone.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t have attorneys, doctors, nurses, social workers, etc., right? (Please, don’t disillusion me.)  Fourth, sometimes, I think I (as an adult) am supposed to teach children with whom I have contact. Maybe we adults are supposed to teach the children in our lives, but sometimes letting the child process and develop without offering anything (other than a sounding board, faith in the child, and kind understanding) is all that is required.

Working through trauma, as a child or adult, requires wandering through some uncomfortable and unattractive territory. Anger and jealousy are two obvious examples of emotions that we may have an urge to “fix” when we are talking to children who are grieving the loss or absence of a person.  When working with sex abused kids, all sorts of uncomfortable things come out. As an attorney, it was hard for me to just listen and not try to correct kids who were relaying how they felt, which was often a result of years of manipulation by a sex abuser. For those of you not in this field, children who have been abused might feel more mature than they are, they may have been taught various things about sex and sexuality that were manipulative on the part of the abuser, but then are outside of social norms or societal goals for “healthy” sexual development. Any of these difficult matters might be managed through by a mental health professional with knowledge and skills for treating such a child, but what about the rest of us?  (As an attorney, thank goodness, I always had professionals to whom I could refer these issues.)

Years of working with abuse victims/survivors taught me one big lesson: Getting a victim to open up and talk about what happened is hard work, usually, and when you are listening, you may wish you could stop learning about terrible or troubling things.  After a person begins to talk about what happened and how it made them feel, though, they move on, usually to a better place.  Sometimes, the person would move to the next “stage of grief,” like from guilt to anger, but always they changed/developed. I did not need to guide or suggest anything. I only needed to listen.

Listening was very active for me as an attorney, however. (And this is something many attorneys miss.) As people were telling me what happened, Of course, I had to ask millions of questions about details and how the person remembered events.  This is not the same as asking what happened.  Often traumatic memories are not well organized.  I would ask, "What do you see when you remember this?" sometimes, when the victim knew that all they had was flashes of memories. I, also, repeatedly asked, “How did you feel when…?” or, “when you talk about this, how do you feel?” Sometimes, I would observe what was happening physically, and relay that information to them in order for them to tell me why they were (for example) closing their eyes, looking at the door, agitated, at a loss for words, whatever. I also was writing down the feelings expressed.  So, I was listening carefully, and repeating back what they told me, and I was asking questions to help me describe things clearly in terms of damages or harm suffered. People constantly surprised me and disavowed me of my assumptions. A listener must be open to hearing the unexpected, and then leaving the previously held assumption behind, and going with the witness to the unexpected territory. I learned, and I was a better representative and advocate when I knew my client’s perspective. 

2) The “Bad” Word

There was one frequent challenge, though, and EverybodysFamilyTM really grew from my struggle through it.  That was the answer, “bad.” 

“It made me feel bad.”  I must have received that answer ten thousand times when I asked, “How did that make you feel?” or, “How does it make you feel to tell me about it?”  I never left the word “bad” alone.  Expressing, “I feel bad,” just never seemed like it got people very far.  It allows all sorts of assumptions by listeners and decision makers. Doesn’t it? The word, “bad,” doesn’t really describe a single feeling. It didn’t only keep me from understanding, it also kept the speaker from allowing his/herself to really let the feeling loose.  It was like a shield or a locked door or a lid.

When the word, “bad,” was the best a person could do, we usually needed to unpack things that were not feelings before we could talk about what “bad” meant.  For example, if a man or woman was telling me about being raped, we often had to discuss the social stigma that filled the room before he or she could begin describing what happened and the feelings about what happened and the consequential affects on the person’s self-image and self-respect.  This might include a review of my obligation as an attorney to guard privacy with my life.  Or maybe s/he needed to know that it was not the first time I heard about something like this, or statistics about how many wo/men suffer similar violations, or… you name it.  There was often something keeping the lid of “bad” on the can of emotions and memories.  That was the way it felt to me, anyway, like there were weights on top of a lid.  We had to remove the weights first.  Then we could open the can.

After opening the can, we could resume our communication session, in which I was just a listener again. Often, clients told me that my insistence on getting something more descriptive than the word, “bad,” was a turning point for them. Afterward, they could speak to their therapist or social worker or doctor about the problem. They could let themselves feel what they were most afraid to feel and work toward resolution. They could get the terrible nightmare out of the box in the bottom of the closet (so to imagine) and open it up and realize it was not going to destroy them. They already survived the event. Now, they could survive the memory and the pain. When we replaced the word, “bad,” with all the other words that were hiding, it was like it began to evaporate.  It was broken down into many different feelings, and those feelings were expressed and became lighter and less frightening.

3) Notes:  Remember, and maybe remind your clients: moving through phases of grief or trauma does not mean that one forgets the terrible event or the feelings, but rather that the brain reorganizes traumatic responses and allows one to contemplate the in-contemplapable (that may be my new favorite non-word). Sometimes, humans hold on to the horrible, because it is frightening to let go.  There may be a fear of forgetting or a fear of moving on. Educate yourself about PTSD, depression and brain chemistry. Resolving grief or trauma does not mean that one will forget, but instead that one can, hopefully, remember without the chemical reactions that accompany terror. 

4) Summary of what sounds easy, but is always professionally challenging

What does all of this say about helping children or adults who have experienced trauma? First, I am acknowledging that listening is not always easy.  We are talking about pain and suffering. We have human reactions that we need to be aware of and sometimes control in order to allow the child or survivor to speak openly. Second, even when one is a non-judgmental recipient of another’s story, it can be difficult for a survivor to describe many important aspects of the trauma experienced. The difficulty may be addressed carefully, while still resisting any urge to superimpose the listener’s ideas about what the speaker is struggling to say. Third, that the word “bad,” is usually not a useful descriptive word, but rather a general term that can mask terrifyingly painful feelings and memories. Fourth and finally, there are very good reasons to listen, and to help survivors communicate about difficult matters. For attorneys and advocates and mental health workers, the job probably requires it, but the added benefit is that the communication has personal, even physical benefits for the survivor.