• VPEC

How to Listen to a Story


“‘But goodness," continued Piglet, 'Difficult Days are so much easier when you know you've got someone there for you. And I'll always be here for you, Pooh.'


And as Pooh sat there, working through in his head his Difficult Day, while the solid, reliable Piglet sat next to him quietly, swinging his little legs…he thought that his best friend had never been more right.’"


~ A.A. Milne



The Power of Story


As violence prevention educators (and humans), we're constantly surrounded by stories.


While the stories we hear from the people in our lives often play a role in our own healing, and while these stories help us build meaningful connections, listening is not always easy.


Of course, there are as many ways to respond and listen to stories as there are people in this world.


While the stories we hear from the people in our lives often play a role in our own healing, and while these stories help us build meaningful connections, listening is not always easy. Of course, there are as many ways to respond and listen to stories as there are people in this world.

But here are some techniques that will help you offer support while making sure you're taking care of your own needs, too.


If you lead workshops, modeling these techniques for your students will help foster a sense of community.



Thank You For Sharing


Opening up and sharing a story, especially one we don't have much (or any) experience telling, can be extremely scary and difficult.


When somebody shares a story with you, it's a sign that they are honoring you with their trust.


When somebody shares a story with you, it's a sign that they are honoring you with their trust.

That's why, before saying anything else, we recommend responding with, "Thank you for sharing that with me." You may also want to add, "I'm so sorry. That should have never happened to you."


And that can be enough. If you don't feel comfortable continuing the conversation, that is absolutely okay.


*Note: If during a workshop a student shares a story that might be triggering for other students, or takes time away from what you're supposed to be working on, it's fine to respond by saying, "Thank you for sharing. Let's talk about it privately after class."


If you are okay with continuing the conversation, you can follow up by asking, "What do you need?"



What Do You Need?


After hearing a story, we may have assumptions about what the other person needs, and our first instinct may be to "fix things."


And because we care and want the person to feel better, we may feel tempted to use phrases like, "Well, at least you..." or "Look on the bright side."



But we find that one of the most powerful ways to show our support is to simply ask, "What do you need?"



Then What?


It's very likely that the person sharing with you will hesitate or not be able to identify their needs.

📷 VPEC 2020

Maybe they need water. Maybe they need to go home and sleep.


Maybe they need something they haven’t even thought of.


We can find out more by asking questions and taking cues from the person’s tone, facial expressions, and body language.


And we can show our support with phrases like:


  • "If you'd like to tell me more, I'm listening."

  • "Would it help if I gave you some suggestions?"

  • "We don't have to talk, but I'm happy to sit here with you."


But the most important thing is to listen patiently, without interrupting or checking our phones.


We can make it clear that we're there for them without prying, rushing them, or pushing them to open up more unless they choose to.


If they don’t feel like talking, we can follow Piglet’s lead:


“‘Today was a Difficult Day,‘ said Pooh. There was a pause. ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ asked Piglet. ‘No,‘ said Pooh after a bit. ‘No, I don't think I do.’‘ That's okay,’ said Piglet, and he came and sat beside his friend.”



The Little Things


In the days, weeks, and months that follow the sharing of the story, you can show that you care in ways that don't necessarily involve heavy conversations.


In addition to periodically checking in, you can offer to go for a walk or drop off groceries.


Depending on your relationship, you can also let the person know you're thinking of them by sending videos or funny memes, especially if they involve inside jokes that connect you.



Your Well-Being Matters


Hearing heavy stories is not easy. It hurts to see a person we care about in pain.


It's also difficult to hear stories that bring up feelings about our own experiences.


It is absolutely okay to say,


  • "I'm sorry I can't talk right now. But I'm thinking of you."

  • "I don't have the answers to your questions. But I know somebody who might be better able to help."

  • "I'd like to hear more about this and be here for you. How about we continue the conversation [insert time and place] so I can give this the attention it deserves.


As much as you might want to help, you can't be there for others if you don't take care of yourself.

As much as you might want to help, you can't be there for others if you don't take care of yourself.


Why We Listen


By listening to each other's stories, we create create communities built on empathy and understanding.


Which means we build safer communities.


And, as we've learned from Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, we get to make somebody's difficult day just a little bit easier.


(Download Guide)

How do you show your support when somebody shares a personal story with you?

In what ways does listening to stories help build safer communities?


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