Going through a tough time is hard. Not just for those going through it, but for those around that person that love them and have no idea what to say or do. During this period of constant change in my life, I try to relieve some of the pain by sharing my struggles with trusted friends and family members. However, I sometimes get frustrated when they try to offer advice, or say something that is hurtful, or appear disinterested and want to change the subject as quickly as possible.
Recently, the tables were turned when my husband Jim went through a crisis and it was my turn to be the listener. I’ll be honest and say I did mostly everything wrong. I offered advice, I tried to change his perspective, I wanted to fix it for him immediately. Not helpful.
I realized that knowing what you want others to say when you are hurting doesn’t translate to being a good listener when the shoe is on the other foot. Yet, knowing how to be a listener in these situations is so important for fostering trust and building solid relationships–how come it’s so hard for us to do it correctly?
Here’s the answer: when someone you love is hurting, the most natural thing to do is to want to protect them from whatever is causing the suffering. They are uncomfortable, which makes us uncomfortable–and in our quest to make everything “okay” as quickly as possible we make a tragic assumption. We think we can help our loved one by taking the hurt away for them, or downplaying its importance, or diverting attention away from it. But that’s not what they need from you in this moment. They came to you because they are asking you to help them process the suffering, not remove or minimize it.
If you have a friend or family member that is going through a tough time, here’s what we need you to say when we tell you we are hurting:
- “Go ahead, I am listening.” Listen to us with only one intention: to help us pour out our heart. If we choose to share our story with you, it’s because we truly believe that you will listen without judgement and that you care for us unconditionally. Honor this responsibility by allowing us to fully express all that we are feeling, even if you feel we are perceiving things incorrectly. What we say might be messy and full of inconsistencies and incredibly different from the way you as a listener see the situation. If you want to address or help us correct these differences in perception, do so at another time.
- “I am here for you.” Be present. We have trusted you during an incredibly vulnerable point in our life. We need confirmation that you are willing to sit with us through the pain of emptying our hearts. Focus. If we are face-to-face, put down your phone. If we are talking remotely, try to find a quiet space to remove background noise. Minimize all distractions and truly be with us. If we catch you at a bad time, let us know a better time that will work for you, and then call us back at that time. Your presence and full attention will give us permission to continue the process of reducing our suffering by sharing it.
- “You mean so much to me.” Acknowledge our importance in your life. Reinforcing that the relationship holds a special place in your heart helps us feel comfortable with the intimacy of what we are sharing with you. Sharing the details of what our suffering feels like is an incredibly personal act. We need reinforcement that you find us worthy of listening to what we are sharing and that we can trust you.
- “I know you are hurting, and I will be here whenever you need me.” After a person who is hurting shares something intimate, we fear that the other person will find us too much to handle, or unlovable, or unfit for friendship. We feel so broken, so much a shell of who we were that we think our former relationships won’t want to deal with the new “us.” Acknowledge our feelings, our situation, and tell us you’ll be there for us regardless of how difficult it is. Confirmation from our close friends and family that they will stand with us through the journey helps build our confidence to move forward.
That’s what you say to someone who is hurting. Just those 4 phrases. Over and over and over. But, more importantly, LISTEN. You can do this, and we are begging you to do this. We need you in this moment more than ever.
When someone you love is suffering, they don’t need you to provide a light in their darkness. They don’t need you to tell them to look for something positive. They don’t need you to tell them that everything is going to be okay. Instead, they need you to sit in the darkness with them and hold their hand. They need to know that you are okay with seeing them at their weakest point. They need to know that you will be there for support after the conversation ends.
If you have been entrusted with crisis conversations from a loved one, consider it an honor. The person who is hurting feels as though you are one of the trusted few people, and maybe the only person, who has earned the right to hear their story. Be humble, be present, be kind. Please listen. We need you.
Have you ever shared your story of hurting and you were told something that made you feel loved? Are there phrases you should NOT say to someone who is hurting? Please leave a comment below, share this post and help our community communicate more effectively!