I love opinions. No, really.
People having opinions and thoughts and convictions is a powerful, beautiful thing. Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had have been with people who have different opinions than me.
I’ve always been an opinionated person. I know what I think and why I think it.
I’m also a very empathetic person and I don’t like seeing people I care about be in pain.
In my attempts to help friends and family who are suffering, my overzealous opinions and desperate levels of empathy often make me want to fix my loved one’s problems. Maybe some of you can relate.
Sometimes, fixing problems is a wonderful thing! Having the ability to solve problems is valuable. However, through my own suffering and my attempts to help others, I have found that silence and the ability to listen is overwhelmingly valuable. Poorly timed words of advice or criticism with the best of intentions can hurt a suffering soul immensely.
There is power and healing in silent companionship and intentional listening.
I desperately want to be better at that.
Finding a balance between knowing when to speak, how to comfort, and if you should advise a hurting soul is complicated business. The desire to fix problems can quickly overtake a desire to comfort.
The following four questions have helped me get better at listening intentionally before I offer any suggestions to fix problems and pain. If you want to help people but aren’t sure quite how to navigate it, maybe these questions will help you.
1. What’s wrong/ what happened?
This question shouldn’t need to be on this list, but I’ve included it for a very important reason. So many people jump to their suggestions and solutions to problems before they even know what is truly going on in someone’s life. I have experienced this problem with others, and I know I have been guilty of it myself.
We should never underestimate the power of listening. If someone has opened up to you about a struggle or problem in their life, listen like you mean it. Ask questions and then really be intent on hearing their answers. This is so important, but so many people (often with the best of intentions) rush right by this to give advice.
No one will listen to your advice if you aren’t willing to listen to their problem. So listen. Listen well.
2. How do you feel about it?
This is a very important question. By showing interest and genuinely caring about someone’s feelings, you can help them by giving them a safe place to talk. Some people may not find this helpful at all, but others may find it to be incredibly healing.
This question also allows you to discern what your response should be. Is the person talking in danger, frantic or panicking? Are they able to work through their feelings well? Are they unsure of how they should feel about their problem or struggle? Paying attention to these things will help you gather more information on how you can best help the person.
3. Is there anything I can do to help you?
Before you make any decisions about what you think someone needs, it’s almost always smart to ask them what they think they need. If someone has opened up to you about an emotionally intense issue, they may not know exactly what they need from you. And you should let them know that that’s ok too.
Everyone is unique and processes feelings differently. What someone else needs during a hard time may be something that you’ve never even thought of. It’s always wise to take the time to ask and listen to what they need from you.
4. Is it alright if I offer some suggestions?
Offering advice can be taken the wrong way so easily. Even if you are truly trying to help someone, you may make things worse by making them feel like they are being criticized or like they aren’t trying hard enough.
To avoid misunderstanding, it can be incredibly helpful to simply ask permission before sharing advice. Then the person you’re talking to knows that you’re trying to help, not questioning and criticizing.
They know themselves and their ability to intake information. As much as you can, respect their boundaries and thoughts about whether advice would be helpful or not at a particular time.
Helping people is hard. I know. But it is so important that we do it and do it well.
As a Christian, I’m called to help carry the burdens of my brothers and sisters. These questions help me navigate the complicated paths of supporting and helping other people.
Everyone needs a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on from time to time. Everyone needs support. While taking your own well-being into consideration, I want to encourage you to try to be a supporter as much as you can be. I hope these thoughts will help make that a little easier for you.