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How to Use Compassionate Listening to Help Someone Through Trying Times

Ms. Meyers got depressed after her son was diagnosed with autism.She realized her sadness came from people's unwillingness to simply listen.

Compassionate listening is an act of selflessness, letting someone talk and purge their pain.

Compassionate listening is an act of selflessness, letting someone talk and purge their pain.

Why are we human beings often at our worst when our friends and family need us the most?

If you've ever grieved the loss of a child, pet, marriage, or job, you expected family and friends to rally around you, comfort you, and offer support. If they didn't, though, you were probably left shaken, shocked, and let down. You may have lost faith in humanity, become jaded, turned inward, and grew isolated

I know this because it happened to me when my 4-year-old son got diagnosed with autism. Much to my dismay, some folks who I thought would be the most nurturing actually turned their backs on me, including two family members.

Folks Who Don’t Listen Prolong Our Pain

Twelve years later, my son is thriving at high school. He remains unscathed from that period, hardly remembering it, but I’m still recovering from the trauma. Without a doubt, getting his autism diagnosis wasn’t nearly as distressing as having people who I once loved and admired disappoint me in such an unexpected way.

As part of my recovery, I've spoken with others who experienced similar heartbreaking letdowns.

What I heard again and again is how they needed to open up about their grief and purge their agony. But, friends and family too often changed the subject and reverted to superficial “happy talk.”

They wished these folks had been brave enough to hear their sorrow instead of running from it.

Compassionate Listening Works

Because of these conversations, I pinpointed compassionate listening as the most essential tool for helping a person in distress.

It provides the relief folks need in a world that can be so indifferent to their pain. Andrei Lankov said, “To not have your suffering recognized is an unbearable form of violence.” For those of us who’ve experienced it, we most certainly agree.

When using compassionate listening, keep these three crucial components in mind:

  1. Put your ego aside
  2. Be fully present
  3. Follow up

1. Put Your Ego Aside

Let the Suffering Person Vent

The most challenging part of compassionate listening is setting aside your ego and letting the suffering person talk without interrupting.

Some of us have taken classes on empathetic listening and were taught to use “I messages” to restate what the suffering person said.

For example, your friend is concerned about her teenage son who skips classes, doesn’t study, and hangs out with kids who smoke marijuana. With empathetic listening, you re-formulate what she said in your own words so she feels heard: “Let me get this straight. I gather you’re worried because he’s making poor choices that could affect the rest of his life.”

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However, some of us who practiced empathetic listening found it to be too stilted and off-putting. We got so focused on restating what the suffering person said that we weren’t listening to the emotions behind the words. It distracted us from doing what was most important: letting the suffering person vent.

Make It All About the Suffering Person

With compassionate listening, you don't get sidetracked by formulating “I messages.” You don’t rephrase what the suffering person said, give advice, ask questions, or relate your own personal experiences.

It's not about you at all; it’s about the suffering person. It's their time to purge their pain. If you have something valuable to contribute, this isn’t the time. Save it for another day. Remember these words: "Sitting silently beside a friend who is hurting may be the best gift we can give."


When my son got diagnosed with autism, I started seeing a therapist because nobody in my inner circle would listen. Instead, they felt compelled to tell me about their brother, sister, friend, neighbor, or third cousin twice removed who had autism or had a child with autism.

They felt obliged to give me trite advice such as: "Don't worry. it will all work out in the end" and "There's nothing you can do. It's all in God's hands."

They felt the need to ask probing questions, trying to figure out the root of my son's autism: "Do you think it was caused by vaccinations? Does it run in your family? Did you experience complications during your delivery?"

They obviously wanted to find the source of my son’s autism for their own self-serving reasons. When we hear someone has cancer, for example, we want to know if he was a smoker. If someone’s teenage daughter died in a car crash, we want to know if she was speeding.

We’re protecting ourselves so we don’t feel vulnerable…so we’re not faced with the reality that shit just happens sometimes. It’s human nature but not at all helpful for the person who’s suffering.

Give the Greatest Gift

According to clinical psychologist Leon Seltzer, letting someone unload their anguish is one of the greatest gifts we can give. He writes, “Whether it's sorrow, anxiety, anger, or frustrations in general, repeatedly holding in what may need to come out has been related to compromised health—physical, mental, and emotional.”

Compassionate listening requires us to behave like professional therapists. We let the suffering person release their pent-up pain at their own pace and on their own terms.

We don't rush the process. Instead, we let it emerge in an organic way through words, tears, and anger. With compassionate listening, we must be prepared for raw emotions and not run from them.

When we practice compassionate listening, we must have no distractions and no agenda. Let the speaker say whatever they want without interruptions, questions, and judgments.

When we practice compassionate listening, we must have no distractions and no agenda. Let the speaker say whatever they want without interruptions, questions, and judgments.

2. Be Fully Present

Prioritize People Over Technology

In today's bustling high-tech world, many of us have been guilty of forsaking family members and friends in their time of need.

We get so immersed in our cell phones, laptops, computers, and I-pads. Our minds are always divided between what we're doing now, what we just finished doing, and what we're doing next. We rarely live in the here-and-now.

With compassionate listening, though, we must be fully present: no distractions and no interruptions. We must adopt the mindset: There's nothing more important on my agenda than being here and listening to this person speak their truth and release their pain.

Alleviate Their Shame

When I look back at my life following my son’s diagnosis, I see that not being heard and supported was far more devastating to my emotional well-being than coping with his autism.

When I had nobody to turn to for comfort, my thoughts became distorted. I began to blame myself for my son's condition. I wondered: Did I do something wrong during my pregnancy? Did I not eat enough nutritious foods? Did I not get enough rest? Did I exercise too much or too little?

I began to feel guilty and ashamed. I thought I was a failure as a mother even though my parenting journey was just beginning.

If only I had the opportunity to verbalize these thoughts to a caring soul, I would have surely recognized how crazy they were.

Instead they festered inside of me. I lived in a silent, secret world of shame. I became more and more isolated. The last thing I wanted to do was hang around other moms and their healthy, thriving kids.

Let Them "Empty Their Heart"

Since that time, I've become a huge advocate for compassionate listening. I now see how it could have alleviated so much grief in my life and the lives of others.

It takes courage, patience, and goodwill to set aside time and hear someone's anguish. Thich Nhat Hanh was a Buddhist monk, Zen master, and author of The Art of Communicating. He described compassionate listening as a way to let the suffering person "empty her heart." It’s a much-needed first step in the healing process.

In the video below, Thich Nhat Hanh explains the essence of compassionate listening.

3. Follow Up

Help them Regain Perspective

When I was in the throes of depression after my son's diagnosis, my thoughts were distorted.

I saw my boy as damaged goods and not the unique, loving child he was. I was too caught up in his therapies, listening to the professionals telling me what was wrong with him and how to change him. My entire existence was about making him better, not enjoying who he was at that moment.

It would have been so helpful for someone to tell me I was off course and needed to regain my perspective. While this shouldn't happen during the compassionate listening phase, it should be done during a follow-up.

The primary goal of the follow-up is to communicate: “I heard your suffering and care about your pain.”

Validate Feelings and Give Insights

The follow-up is the time to validate the suffering person’s feelings. Someone who was doing a follow-up with me, for example, might have said: “I know you're worried about your son and what the future has in store for you and him. You have every right to be scared. I would feel that way, too.”

It's also the time to give your insights on the situation and, perhaps, offer some advice: “You're such a caring mother who desperately wants what's best for your son. But remember he's your child, not your patient. Take time away from trying to fix him and just be goofy with him.”

During the compassionate listening phase, you built the foundation that proved to the suffering person they mattered to you. Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

The follow-up lets you share what you know. You're in the perfect position to help the suffering person see their situation more clearly and move forward in a positive way.

© 2017 McKenna Meyers

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