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Bad Listening Skills II: Responding to Grief and Loss

What is it about death and loss that triggers the worst listening skills in us?

 Hank Davis
Source: Image: Hank Davis

Last time around we examined how well-intentioned attempts of “empathy” can result in very poor listening. The listener often ends up telling his own story instead of listening to yours.

The kind of Bad Listening we’re going to examine today is even worse. It misses an opportunity to show compassion and offers instead some uninvited and – for many of us – downright offensive preaching. Even when that kind of spiritual arrogance does not occur, it is still unlikely you’ll get the kind of support or empathy you’re looking for in times of grief. What is it about death and loss that triggers the worst listening skills in most people?

It’s not like they’re trying to be hurtful, but most listeners are not at their best when you tell them about your grief or loss. Report the death of a loved one and stand back for a barrage of insensitivity or worse.

Joe – My mother died yesterday.

Chris – Well, she’s in a better place now.

Note that there are many variants of Chris’s response. They involve references to heaven, God, the arms of Jesus, socializing with one’s ancestors, etc. If Chris and Joe already have a close relationship and they’re sure about shared religious beliefs, then Chris’s comments may be appropriate.

But that’s not always the case. If Chris is merely a colleague from work or an old college friend, and Chris knows nothing about Joe’s spiritual/supernatural/religious beliefs, then those comments are utterly inappropriate. That’s about the kindest thing we can say about them. They are also presumptuous and extremely arrogant: Chris is assuming that his/her beliefs are universal or, at the least, are the same as Joe’s.

The problem here is that Joe just shared a vulnerable, intimate (and painful) fact with Chris. He has trusted her/him and he could use some support. Something like, “Oh, Joe. That must be a terrible loss for you.” That’ll do. Even something like, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Were you very close?” Just something to engage with Joe and show some compassion. To keep the focus on Joe’s pain. His life.

Grief and loss are universal. Judeo-Christian beliefs are not. What is it about having such beliefs that predisposes one to be a poor listener? Roughly 23% of the US population (the percentages are higher in Canada) identifies as “not religiously affiliated.” The percentage of secular humanists is on the rise by most measures [FOOTNOTE # 1]. The numbers are even higher in Europe. I have never known an atheist to impose their beliefs on a theist who is grieving. But when an atheist or agnostic has suffered a loss, they often seem to be fair game for proselytizing.

Of course, bad listening in times of grief doesn’t consist solely of religious arrogance. We can return to the previous column (Bad Listening Skills I) for some other Bad Listening tips.

Hank: My dog died yesterday and I’m feeling really sad.

Pam: I know! My cat died last month and I was really bummed out. She had leukemia. It took me weeks to get over it. I still miss her.

Thanks, Pam. Have a look at that previous column to see how such unwanted “empathy” is usually received. It rarely goes down well. To put it bluntly, I don’t want to hear about your damn cat! My dog just died. I feel awful. I want you to hear that. Ask me about him. How old was he? How did he die? I just need to talk about him. To tell someone about him. To have my loss acknowledged. Who cares about your cat at a time like this? About the only positive thing I can say about Pam’s response is that it doesn’t involve tales about my dog going to heaven. But Pam still isn’t listening.

In general people are far better at telling you their own stories and beliefs than they are at listening to yours. That makes sense. But humans are a social species. In a social world you have to give to get. “Listening” is a social nicety that has evolved its own rules in the modern world. You want to be known as a good friend? You’d better be prepared to do some listening. You want to be a good partner? Shut up and start listening. Soon enough you’ll reap the benefits. It probably won’t be long before you have a story to tell or a loved one to grieve. You too will want the benefits of social support. You’ll want to be heard by someone who doesn’t take the focus off you or use your grief as an opportunity to pronounce their religious beliefs.

The consequences of being a poor listener are pretty apparent and quite reasonable. Being a good listener doesn’t always come naturally. It’s a skill set and, like most skill sets, it needs to be learned. Sometimes – perhaps too often – that requires unlearning some previous behaviors. That’s the part that rankles most people. As we discovered last time, motivation isn’t enough. I may want to dance the tango, but unless somebody teaches me the moves, I’m going to make an idiot of myself out there on the dance floor. I’m also likely to leave my partner quite unsatisfied.


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