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Guidelines for Listening to War Veterans

by Al Siebert, PhD

Author of The Resiliency Advantage: Master Change, Thrive Under Pressure and Bounce Back From Setbacks (2006 Independent Publisher’s Best Self-Help book), and best seller The Survivor Personality: Why Some People Are Stronger, Smarter, and More Skillful at Handling Life’s Difficulties…and How You Can Be, Too.


The main problem for many war veterans and survivors of torturous experiences is not what they went through. Their problem is that very few people have the emotional strength to listen to them talk about what they went through. The poor relationships that survivors often have with spouses, children, relatives, neighbors, employers, and co-workers are not merely a result of delayed reactions to stress. The feelings of isolation and poor relationships with others are, in part, from having bad experiences with people who are poor listeners.

Pictures of the war in Iraq did not show the gruesome carnage caused by the bombing. "Most people would go weird," one combat veteran says, "when they hear about what I saw."

People who have survived highly distressing experiences will usually talk with a good listener who will take time to hear the whole story. If you are willing to listen to someone speak truthfully about all their experiences, here are useful guidelines to follow:

  1. Don’t ask about a person’s experiences unless you can handle honest answers. When Vietnam combat veterans returned home they found that very few people had the emotional strength to listen to their stories. Don’t open someone up and then "chicken out" when the story gets too rough. Tell yourself that a reasonably strong human being ought to be able to at least listen to what another person has lived through. Survivors of horrifying experiences will usually talk to a person who has the courage to listen.

  2. Give the person lots of time. Vietnam veterans found that the average person could listen for only several minutes. When a veteran is willing to talk to you, it is important to allow him or her plenty of time to talk. Don’t interrupt to state your feelings about the war. This is not a time for discussion! Plan to listen for hours. Expect to have some follow-up sessions. When people open themselves up to relive strong emotional experiences, additional details and feelings may flood into their minds in the days that follow. It is typical for combat veterans to have nightmares and periods of emotional turmoil.

  3. Be an active listener. Ask for details. Ask about feelings. Ask questions when you feel puzzled about facts or incidents.

  4. Remain quiet if he or she starts crying. It may help to touch or hold the person if it feels right to both of you. Don’t tell the person to not feel what he’s feeling. Don’t suggest a better way to look at it. Leave his or her thoughts and feelings alone. Your quiet presence is more useful than anything else you can do.

  5. Listen with empathy, but minimize sympathy. It is easier for combat veterans to reveal what they went through if they don’t have to put up with sympathy. ("What a horrible experience! You poor man!") Survivors of horrible experiences talk more easily to a person with calm concern. Control your imagination and resist letting their feelings become your feelings. Don’t make the veteran have to handle your emotional reactions as well as his or her own. If you need emotional support, seek it elsewhere.

  6. Ask if he or she sees anything positive about being in combat. It is not accurate to think of most war veterans as having a post-traumatic stress disorder. Some do. The majority do not. Research shows that many who served in Vietnam became significantly more mature and developed a healthy personal identity. The same extreme circumstances that cause emotional trauma for some people cause others to become stronger.

The Resiliency Center was founded by the late Al Siebert, PhD who studied highly resilient survivors for over fifty years. He authored the award-winning book The Resiliency Advantage: Master Change, Thrive Under Pressure and Bounce Back From Setbacks (2006 Independent Publisher’s Best Self-Help book), and best seller The Survivor Personality: Why Some People Are Stronger, Smarter, and More Skillful at Handling Life’s Difficulties…and How You Can Be, Too.