You were looking forward to lunch with your friend but twenty minutes into the meal, she begins to tell you about her conflict with her mother and your stomach begins to tighten. What should you do?
It is not as hard as you think. We often get tense because it is hard to see people suffer and we think we have to fix the problem or come up with the solution. But we don’t have to be the answer experts. In fact I believe there are only four things we need to do to be a first-rate friend: Love our friends, listen to them, respect them and keep our lips zipped.
Let’s break these down.
There isn’t a person on the planet who doesn’t love to be loved. We were made for close relationships with people and with God. Yet we often find it hard to stay relational and connected to someone in pain. How can we do it?
1. I remind myself that I can listen to them without agreeing with them. I also tell myself, I don’t have to fix this. This is not my problem. I don’t have to take responsibility for this issue; I can help by listening.
2. Stay attentive. Make eye contact. It is often good to match the expression of the person who is sharing. Matching facial expressions shows the speaker that you understand without words.
3. Be genuinely glad to be with them. People can tell if you want to be with them. According to Jim Wilder of the Life Model, a signal goes back and forth six times a second from your eyes to theirs that tells them if you want to be with them.
If you aren’t glad to be with them, be honest about your limitations. It is okay to say, “I only have ten minutes,” or “This isn’t a good time for me to talk,” or even “This is touching on some of my own pain and overwhelming me, can you spare me the details?” Wilder calls this “taking the thorns out of the story.” By this he means telling the story in a way that leaves out specific detail so we won’t overwhelm people.
4. Be aware of optimum spacing. The best distance for deep sharing is about an arm’s length apart. If you move closer, a lot of people will feel that you have invaded their space and will back up. If you stand further away, people tend not to open up. Also it is helpful to angle your body a bit relative to theirs, straight-on may be too confrontational, while side-by-side makes it hard to maintain eye contact. Choose something between straight-on and side-by-side. This works seated as well as standing, so think about positioning chairs at the optimum distance and angle for sharing.
5. Monitor you attitude. If you feel that your relational circuits are dimming or going off, take your feelings to God and process what you are feeling. Remember when talking to God always tell him how you feel not how you think you ought to feel. I sometimes find that my worry and concern get in the way. When I take my fear to God and connect with him, he gives me his perspective and enlarges my capacity to stay connected.
We all know people who radiate warmth and draw people like bees to honey. If you think about what makes them warm and inviting, it is almost entirely non-verbal. They smile, make eye contact and are genuinely glad to see you.
Then there are those who struggle to connect. According to the Life Model, the kinds of social skills that make it easy or hard for us to connect with others are learned while we are still infants. Have you ever seen a mother and baby smile at each other? First one smiles, then the other. Back and forth. As they smile, their brains release dopamine, which builds joy and helps them bond. Babies and mothers need rest, too. Indeed the optimum emotional growth occurs with mothers and their little ones share synchronized cycles of smiling joy-building and rest where they let their bodies slow down and enjoy being quiet together.
If someone seems cold, don’t assume they don’t want to connect. Maybe no one synchronized with them when they were tiny and now they don’t know how to synchronize with others. They may isolate themselves because it was too painful to try repeatedly to connect without success. But it is never too late to build those social skills. We can help by tuning in, being genuinely glad to be with them and modeling good skills, including when to disengage, take a break and rest.
Listen to Them
The second way we can reach out to a struggling friend is by honing our listening skills so they feel understood. According to the class Listening for Heaven’s Sake by Equipping Ministries International, listening makes people feel loved and helps them process and take ownership of their own problems. And knowing how to listen well can also keep you, the listener, from becoming anxious or overly involved in your friend’s woes.
How do you start? The best way to make people feel understood is to reflectively listen to them. It shows them that we want to understand even if we don’t get it right the first time. To listen reflectively, we listen closely and try to discern what the seeker is feeling and thinking. Body language and voice tone speak volumes about what others are feeling and if you listen closely you should have some idea of the thought, or situation, that has them stirred up. Then simply put the feelings and thoughts together and slap a tentative opening on the front and you are good to go.
Tentative opening? The Listening for Heaven’s Sake class teaches participants to start with a tentative opening because no one likes to be told what they think or feel. Even if someone says, “I am furious, that car almost hit me!” they don’t want to hear you say: “You are angry!” The tentative statement: “You sound a little angry,” sounds so much better.
Start tentative. Some good ways to make your reflective statement tentative is to turn it into a question such as:
Am I hearing you say . . . ?
Are you saying . . . ?
Are you feeling . . .?
Or you can just begin with the word, “So . . . you’re feeling . . . or “It seems like you’re . . . .”
The word little is also great. “So you’re a little blue?” “Am I hearing you say that you are feeling a little down.”
It takes practice but when you get good at it, it becomes almost automatic. People love it when you listen.
When you reflect back the feeling and the situation, try to use different words than the speaker. Don’t sound like a parrot! It will only irritate them.
“I am so angry.”
“You sound angry.”
“I am angry. She almost hit me.”
“So she almost hit you?”
AAArrrggh. No one wants to be mimiced. If you are struggling, be silent and keep an attentive expression. That is so much better than most people do.
So let’s try to practice reflecting.
Exercise One: “I am really struggling. My daughter says she wants to move to California.”
Step one. Chose a tentative opening. So . . .
Step Two. What might the seeker be feeling? Hurt. Sad. Betrayed. Lost. Devastated. Irritated.
Step Three. What is the situation? Her daughter wants to move out. Her daughter is leaving. Her daughter is moving away.
Put it all together
So am I hearing you say that you are feeling sad because your daughter wants to move away?
So you’re pretty upset that your daughter wants to move out.
It seems it would be pretty painful to have your daughter say she wants to find a new place to live.
Let’s try it again
“My son broke my favorite teapot!”
See if you can come up with a good reflective statement. Send them to me as comments and I will post the best ones.
In my next blog, more on listening, respect and how to keep our lips zipped.
Ideas in the blog are from the course Listening for Heaven’s Sake and the Life Model at Lifemodel.org.