Stories, the Gift of Listening, and Veterans Day

One of my last jobs in the military was to reintegrate recovered Soldiers.  I was deployed to a large base in Eastern Afghanistan.  I lead the team that helped Soldiers who had been separated from their units process their experience and return to duty.  These men and women had survived incredibly traumatic experiences–helicopter crashes, ambushes that separated them from their unit, capture, etc.

The main tool for helping people through normalize these events is listening to their story.

The process was pretty simple:

  • Provide context and meaning.  When I was in this role, we compiled the reports to improve the training that prepared Soldiers for these situations.  The person sharing should know that their words, the detail they can provide, will help others beyond themselves.  They want to know that their story has purpose.
  • Listen without interrupting.  As busy as we are, it can be hard to listen to another person without interjecting own agenda, without trying to pin their words to a familiar narrative.  But it is essential to let the person tell their experience in their own way, in as much detail as they’re willing to share.
  • Thank them for sharing.  Genuinely, no matter what they said.
  • Tell them that they did well.  Most people want an evaluation of their actions–they want to know to receive a “grade” and know that they performed to expectations in this difficult event.  So we made sure to commend each Soldier for the things they did well.
  • Ask questions after they finish.  Because the purpose of sharing was framed as helping, we asked detailed questions about particular parts of the story.  But we did so after the person had shared their entire narrative.


I share this today because it’s an easy gift for those around us.  And it is particularly powerful when someone has had a different experience–for helping them understand what they have been through and move past it.

Tomorrow is Veterans’ Day.  Most Americans don’t know those who have served, or have a connection to their experiences.  If you’d like to thank or help a veteran this weekend–try this method.  Ask to hear the story of their service, and frame it as something that would help you understand.  Listen without interrupting.  Thank them for what they did well.

You might be amazed at what you hear.

Have a great day!

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