How to Support Survivors of Hurricane Florence

"You have two ears, two eyes, and one mouth. Use proportionately when helping."

Posted Sep 14, 2018

Ben White/Unsplash
Source: Ben White/Unsplash

“You have two ears, two eyes, and one mouth—use proportionately when helping others.” Compassion International President Emeritus Dr. Wess Stafford recently shared this advice with our MA in Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership students during an interview I conducted as part of our monthly Leadership Lab. His point was that if we really want to help amidst tragedies we need to listen more and talk less—and we would be wise to apply his advice when helping survivors of Hurricane Florence.

Don’t get me wrong. Words can help ease distress and even spark hope in those in need. However, the truth of the matter is, there are no ‘golden’ words or phrases we can share that will make the pain go away. There’s nothing we can say that will make everything better. That’s why we often feel helpless when disaster strikes. Because our words can’t solve the problem, we are prone to freeze up, say things we normally wouldn’t, or sidestep difficult conversations.

As a result, we often fall into the trap of relying on platitudes that aren’t helpful and can even be harmful to someone going through a trauma. Sometimes, we rely on platitudes because it helps us, the helper, feel less anxious. We toss out a cliché to break the unbearable weight of silence. At other times, we share familiar statements that lack substance as a way to stop the outpouring of emotion that makes us uncomfortable. This is why we need to focus more on listening and speaking less.

Although listening may sound easy, I can tell you it is not. It can be particularly challenging, especially when listening to others’ disaster experience. Here are a few tips that can help make you a better listener:

  • Acknowledge the difficulty of the situation. Survivors need to be reminded that their pain and struggle are legitimate.
  • Be there through the difficulties. Survivors need to know that you will be there with them not just today, but in the future - they will not have to walk this road alone.
  • Be willing to listen to the hard stuff. Sometimes it may get uncomfortable but survivors need to be able to process what they have seen and experienced.
  • Relate to the survivor through his or her worldview. If he or she has a different set of beliefs or way of looking at things, try to understand where they are coming from.
  • Help the survivor manage anxiety and other emotions. Listening helps remind survivors that they are not alone in the recovery process.
  • Notice and point out the strengths and changes you see in them. Survivors may not be able to see the real progress they are making when they are focused on how far they have to go.
  • Listen for risk or evidence of self-harm. If you are worried they may be struggling with a mental health issue, refer them to a mental health professional for support (more resources are available at apa.org, counseling.org, psychiatry.org, naswdc.org, aamft.org, and aapc.org).

Instead of racking your brain for the perfect thing to say, focus instead on listening well. This is one of the best ways you can provide emotional support to Hurricane Florence survivors. Helping them feel heard and understood will speak more deeply to survivors than any words you might say. Listening will speak more deeply to disaster survivors than any words you might say.

Dr. Jamie Aten is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook (InterVarsity Press) and A Walking Disaster: What Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience (Templeton Press, forthcoming January 2019). In 2016 he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion award at the White House. Follow on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit his website jamieaten.com.

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