The Pros and Cons of Listening to a Traumatic Experience

By Guest Author Tess Nelson

Two people talking, by alancleaver_2000It is common knowledge that people who have undergone a traumatic experience can heal emotionally by simply talking about it with someone else; everyone needs to vent.  However, while this process may be beneficial to the speaker, it can negatively impact the listener.

Lewis and Manusov looked at 82 reports of interactions between closely related persons (based on emotional ties and proximity, such as roommates, relatives, friends, and romantic partners). The end results indicated that the listener’s level of distress increased with the amount of responsibility felt and the time they spent listening.  However there are many varying factors that contribute to the listener’s level of distress that should also be considered, such as expectations by speakers, the level of distress the speaker is experiencing, the amount of support the listener can provide and what resources are available to the listener.  Another major influencing factor is the listener’s reluctance to listen; sometimes people just do not want to hear about it.  Nonetheless, the predominate deciding factor is the type of relationship between the listener and speaker. This relationship determines the level of responsibility the listener feels, what the speaker expects from the listener, and ultimately how each will feel when the conversation ends.

It is important that both persons leave the conversation with little or no distress. Ideally both would come out feeling better, but this is a difficult feat to achieve.  While generally the speaker may decrease their levels of distress, they may unknowingly distress the listener, especially if they have not undergone professional training.  If the listener can no longer offer support, they can only distance themselves emotionally.  The most common way to do so is to offer advice; however there is also a possibility that this too could have negative effects on the discloser, which in turn has a negative effect on the listener.  Thus it is at this point that the listener should encourage the speaker to talk to a counselor, support group, or other personal relationship.

Lewis, T., & Manusov, V. (2009). Listening to Another’s Distress in Everyday Relationships. Communication Quarterly, 57, 282-301.

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Michael Rabby, PhD, serves as a consultant, author & professor specializing in social media, relationship building, and statistics-based research. Here, I muse about these things, along with the occasional comment about music, sports, and whatever else strikes my fancy. After all, it is still communication.