How to Listen Someone’s Trauma Story

January 12, 2018 Kristance Harlow

It’s more authentic to trust in the ability of others to narrate their own experience without your outsider attempts to analyze and rationalize and correct their experience. (This is not a legal or public conversation that I am focusing on, but rather intimate settings and personal conversations with confidants, friends, and family). That outsider analyzation and opinion injection is something we have probably all been guilty of doing at some point. We may think that the story must be exaggerated, or that the person is lying about their trauma, they are being dramatic by trying to prove they are hopeless when you know there is hope for them, and those things can frustrate the listener.

Survivors assume the listener cannot handle the truth. That the burden would be too much. It might be true that someone is embellishing or falsifying stories, but it’s not out of some kind of malicious desire to manipulate. We can be so dead set on showing this person that they are mistaken and shaking them into reality that we completely miss the point of the listener/speaker relationship. Or we can want to show the person that they’re trauma wasn’t all that bad compared to ours or compared to X, Y, Z. If we insist on correcting or reality-checking someone who is speaking about their trauma, we risk alienating them.

One of my favorite books on trauma is by Judith Herman (if you’ve been a reader of mine for a while, you’ll know I often reference her when talking about this subject). The book is called Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror and you can get it as an ebook or delivered to your home. I have a kindle version and it’s been a priceless resource for me.

In that book she writes about the traumatic story:

“Traumatized people struggle to arrive at a fair and reasonable assessment of their conduct, finding a balance between unrealistic guilt and denial of all moral responsibility. In coming to terms with issues of guilt, the survivor needs the help of others who are willing to recognize that a traumatic event has occurred, to suspend their preconceived judgments, and simply to bear witness to her tale. When others can listen without ascribing blame, the survivor can accept her own failure to live up to ideal standards at the moment of extremity. Ultimately, she can come to a realistic judgment of her conduct and a fair attribution of responsibility.”
Herman, Judith L.. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (p. 67)

You don’t need to understand me or my post traumatic symptoms. Having empathy and patience does not mean you must experience what I experience. We can never know exactly what another person has lived through and how they felt in each moment. When we let go of our desire to prove have experienced things as bad as someone else, or that they have it better than this other person you know, we are quitting the oppression Olympics and can begin to interact in a more human, natural, and compassionate way.

Two people can go through the same events and one may be traumatized while the other is not. Two people can be diagnosed with the same disorder(s) but have completely different backstories and experiences. Psychological trauma can be caused by an array of circumstances. Post-traumatic symptoms do not manifest in the same way for everyone.

Get a copy of The Aftermath of Trauma for yourself.

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  1. Alice Lynn on January 13, 2018 at 12:03 pm

    An important article. Your points are well taken and described. As a former DV case manager, I know the value of listening to stories of trauma and abuse. One thing I tried to keep in mind was the importance of being a safe witness. Thanks your added insghts.

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