Last week we went over allowing big emotions in ourselves so we can accept them in others. We talked about how we all need someone we can trust to share those emotions with. But how do we become that kind of friend for others? How do we become the one who is a safe haven in the storms of life, rather than the iceberg the Titanic capsizes on?
That’s what I’d like to address today. Any time a friend or family member shares something big with us, it can be scary. We want to help, comfort, and encourage, but we’re not sure how. We can be so afraid of the emotion they’re expressing to us and overwhelmed with the longing to fix it, that we stay away and end up doing exactly what we feared in the first place: we hurt them.
Would you believe it’s as simple as listening to them?
After attending a training at my local Pregnancy Resource Center, a lot of my long-held beliefs were flipped. Some of my not-so-nice habits were exposed. The way I began to see myself and others was radically changed, and I believe the same can happen for you. What I learned is applicable not just inside the counseling room, but in everyday life with friends and family as well.
So let’s get to them. Most of the steps I will suggest are based off of Cynthia Philkill’s training manual, Equipped to Serve.
The most important thing you can do is listen, and listen well. If you or someone you know has gone through a tragedy, you know the best thing someone did was listen. It was the person who let you vent and held you, and most likely not anything they said.
There’s a reason for that. People long to be heard. They long to know that someone heard the innermost cry of their heart, understood, and cared. Beyond what their lips are saying, they long to know you heard what their heart was saying.
So let’s begin to look at some ways of how to be better listeners:
Restating and rephrasing simply shows another person that not only were you being attentive, but also that you value what they say enough to hear every single word.
When you restate, you simply echo what they said.
If your friend says, “I feel alone, like I don’t have anyone to talk to,” you say, “You feel alone, like you don’t have anyone to talk to.”
That’s it. It’s simple and sounds silly, but you’ll be amazed at the effects it can produce. When you’re conscious of the fact that you might have to restate things, you’ll be listening a thousand times better.
I compare it to hearing under water. You know how when you’re under water everything sounds far away and muffled? That’s how most of us go through life listening to people. We hear parts of what they say-the parts we care about-while going off in our own mind about what we’re going to say next. By learning to truly listen, we are as quick to pick up the sound as a baby hearing outside the womb for the first time.
Rephrasing is only a little different. Once more, you have to be very attentive. It’s not an exact echo of what the other person said-it’s a slight rearranging of the words while still catching the essence of what was said.
If John says, “Work is boring. I’m not feeling challenged anymore.”
By rephrasing, you could say, “You don’t enjoy work anymore.”
2) Be a minister, not a manipulator.
After taking Mrs. Philkill’s training, I was ashamed because I suddenly realized how much of a manipulator I actually was. I hate seeing other people upset, and the first thing I want to do is fix it. I want to make people feel better, but instead of allowing their emotion and hearing them out, I try to help them get rid of the emotion instead. So I basically try to control people’s emotions and mold them into what I want them to feel. What I saw as “helping” was actually “manipulating.”
Here are some other ways you can manipulate so that you can watch and make sure you don’t do the same:
- By thinking anything along the lines of, “How can I ‘get’ him to…” or “How can I ‘make’ her see…”
- By asking questions that contain the answer. In other words, by giving a series of options the other person feels they must choose from. For example, “So are you gonna get another job, or keep the one you have?”
- By asking questions beginning with “why?” Questions beginning with who, what, where, when, or how are all good, but “why?” can sound accusatory and guilt-inducing
- By directing and making the conversation too much about you. Humans are naturally selfish, and as soon as we begin talking, we can make the conversation about us. For example, “I know exactly how you feel. I went through the same thing when…” A general rule of thumb is that by the end of a conversation, the other person should have talked more than you.
The best thing we can do for someone trusting us enough to open up to us is listen for that underlying emotion they’re feeling, and not ignoring it. This type of listening is called interpretive listening- you’re trying to hear beyond just what they’re saying with their lips. What’s the reason behind their words? What is the main emotion keeping them down? Is it anger? Sadness? Fear?
Look for that emotion, and acknowledge it. By acknowledging it, you’re validating it.
When validating an emotion, start it off with a gentle lead-in phrase such as, “It seems to me as if you’re feeling lonely,” or, “It sounds like you feel overwhelmed.” If you’re wrong at the emotion you think they’re feeling, they’ll simply tell you so and give you more insight into what’s actually troubling them.
When someone trusts us enough to share the struggles they’ve been going through, they’re basically baring their souls and making themselves vulnerable to our judgment, condemnation, or indifference. It’s up to us to be deserving of that trust and to respect it. By ignoring or being afraid of the emotion they expressed, we pour salt onto an open wound.
But we can also be a place of refuge, healing, and love. It starts with listening. And listening well.