Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
It is our nature to want to help those in need, to advise and suggest… but sometimes the best support you can offer is to simply hear them.
The Universe is a persistent teacher. She throws us lessons repeatedly until we incorporate them into our daily lives. This muscle memory is akin to repeating a dance step over and over until you find yourself moving automatically to the music. Then the music changes, and you must pivot to stay standing. Some of us are better at that than others.
I considered myself someone who could easily change direction. I thought myself so good at crisis resolution I picked up the moniker, ‘the fixer’.
You know what I mean. Every family has one, along with the mediator, the cheerleader, and the thinker.
I love looking at a problem from all sides and coming up with the best options. I would also consider myself a good listener. Years of teaching have taught me that listening and really hearing is when the most is learned. Combine these two skills, and I get people gravitating towards me. In most cases, years of experience have provided me with the knowledge to respond to each situation appropriately. When presented with a challenge, I dig deep into my well-honed box of life tools, find the right solution, and get to work. However, I was recently thrown not one but two curveballs that reminded me that the Universe is still teaching me vital lessons.
First, a close friend shared that she had received a diagnosis of suspected ovarian cancer. We met before her surgery to walk. She talked. I was shocked at the calmness with which she told me about her previous few weeks and the surgery plans. When I commented on her grace, she said, “It’s so different when it is happening to your body.” As much as I could, I tried to offer supportive words, but what could I say? I was not, nor have I ever been, in her shoes, so words like “I can imagine” or “I don’t know what I would do” seemed shallow and fake. So instead of offering platitudes, I just listened. I responded when appropriate, but more importantly, I gave her a voice to share what she was feeling without judgment.
None of the tools in my box were at all helpful. Thank you, Universe, for the lesson.
Here I thought I had everything I needed stored up in my 50+ years of life. Clearly, I needed to pay attention because I sensed that this was not a one-time-only thing.
A few weeks later, one of my students disclosed that she was the victim of domestic violence. She told me she was stuck because she did not have any place to go with her two children. Then there was the issue of safety. I wasn’t sure what I could do, but as a fellow woman, indeed, I would surely find something in my toolbox.
But once again, each solution I reached for did not fit the situation. I had no idea what this woman was going through. My own experience and personal opinions offered little for me to draw upon.
I have always had the fortune of having a secure roof over my head and food on the table. How could I possibly understand the fear of not having these basic human needs for myself or my children? Her shoes did not fit me.
I know there are policies for these situations, which I did later follow, but first, I realized that this woman needed a voice and a place to be heard. Whether her choice to tell me about her plight was conscious or unconscious, it was now my responsibility to react accordingly. I was honored that I was chosen, so I listened. She told her story. I listened. She told me about her kids, and I listened. Perhaps my presence brought her calm. I’m not sure, but I am sure we did build a trust that I intended to honor.
It is so easy to look at someone’s situation and imagine what it would be like or what you’d do “if it were me.” But both of my recent brushes with the unknown and uncomfortable have reminded me of the value of not needing to search for the right words and just support individuals amid their experience.
But in these instances where words seem to fall short, how do you express to a friend or acquaintance that they matter?
What can we say to show them they are heard? It’s pretty simple. Terms like “I see” or “I understand” are enough. Another great tool is to repeat back what the person said to reaffirm that it matters. “So you mean…” Or maybe just try a smile or a hug.
I love the saying “less is more.”
It is in times when someone you know is hurting that these words need to be your focus. It might be challenging to withhold your opinion or make suggestions. Let’s face it, we all want to feel useful and valuable so that our brain will reward us with a bit of dopamine, giving us that warm feeling. But remember that part about walking in someone else’s shoes? There are going to be plenty of times when you can’t, and that is okay. The point of listening and caring is never about you — it’s about connecting with that person with the issue. This connection requires your attention and compassion. The best way to do this is to listen with your heart and your head.
In our daily conversations with coworkers, friends, and family, we are always expected to know the correct answer or have the right thing to say. Our jobs and our relationships depend on it. But since we are ever-evolving humans, we will come upon situations where we don’t have the words. It is like dancing to music you have never heard before. The unknown can be scary, but if you stop and listen, you will find your rhythm and the steps to join the dance.
You may also enjoy reading The Courageous Art of Supporting Someone in Grief (At Any Age) by Angie Lucas