A few months ago, as I was finalizing the launch plan for my upcoming book, working harder than ever to balance work demands and family needs, I went through a very dark, personal trial. For over three months, I received anonymous, inappropriate text messages, voicemails and images on my cell phone. Each time the contact came from a different phone number and at random times, intruding on my peace, security and sanity.
I stopped answering my phone for numbers I didn’t recognize, and blocked unknown numbers immediately afterwards. I prayed every way I knew how, and had a handful of trusted friends praying for me, too. I made several inquiries and was seeking the proper authorities for help.
And then one day in workout class, I broke down in tears. I suppose it’s only natural that my stress would manifest itself eventually in that way, but I didn’t expect it. And I wasn’t prepared to talk about it. I had been trying to keep it private, knowing sometimes people say the wrong thing and make it worse. And I didn’t have margin for worse. I was pretty much barely keeping things together as it was.
And then that day after class my friends noticed my tears. So I forayed into the unknown place of deciding to trust them with the reality of my situation. And then I learned all over again what anyone who has faced a hardship or trial knows: people aren’t always great at knowing what to do or say in those situations.
That’s the primary reason why I wrote Alongside: A Practical Guide for Loving your Neighbor in their Time of Trial, to give people a road map to navigate their friend’s hard times with grace and love. So maybe instead of unintentionally making things worse, they might make what’s already terrible a bit better.
I love that Susie teaches about listening as an important tool in relationships of all kinds. I couldn’t agree more! And when your friend or loved one is facing a crisis, listening is one of the most valuable things you can do to support them. But listening isn’t always easy, and many people don’t do it right.
So here are a few golden rules to help you rise to the task next time your friend or loved one needs you to listen.
Three Golden Rules of Listening to a Friend in Crisis
Listen, don’t judge.
Early on in my crisis, I fell prey to one close friend’s judgment when I confided in her. I’m sure she didn’t think before saying it. But her words, “That’s the danger of putting your whole life on social media,” cut to my core. I am the victim and it’s not my fault there is evil in the world. And although I know it’s wise to be careful what you share on social media, if someone wants to find your phone number and pictures of your family, they don’t have to look very far to find them. And that goes for any of us, social media or not.
What I needed was my friend’s quiet concern and support. Yet, her words made me feel as if I had done something wrong to deserve this terrible attack on my family. And in the end her thoughtless words made a hard thing even harder for me.
Listen, don’t compare.
We have all had that friend who says, “I know how you feel…” and then proceeds to hijack your story in favor of talking about their similar experience. Only often, it’s not similar. But either way, anything you do to take the focus off me and what I’m feeling at the time is unhelpful.
That day at the gym, when I bared my soul about my recent torture, one unwitting friend said, “I know how you feel. There was a person that randomly called my cell phone for a while and would just burp into the phone. It was so gross!”
Um, NO. You don’t get to compare me receiving pornographic messages and personal pictures used inappropriately to someone burping. Just. No.
Don’t mistake comparison as empathy. It can derail your efforts to listen effectively and it makes it about you, not the person you want to support.
Listen, don’t fix.
We have an innate desire to fix what’s broken. But most people in trial don’t necessarily want fixing, especially when their situation is “unfixable”, like in the case of illness or death. In my case, people offered helpful ideas about resources I could turn to for help, which was appropriate. But in general when people jump to, “I can help make this better” without asking first, it can be frustrating.
The best way to be sure you’re not overstepping in this area is to ask questions like, “Would you like ideas for ______?” This way you help if they want it, but not if it your fix-it mode will make it worse for them.
In the end, we make listening harder than it has to be, because we tend to add judgment, comparison and a fix-it mentality to the job description. Instead, if we listen attentively, validate our friend’s feelings and allow them to lessen their burden in that moment, we will offer life-giving support in their time of need. We only need a tender, compassionate heart.
And very few words.
What ways have you found to practice the art of being a good listener for someone in their time of need?
For more practical ways to walk with friends or family through the rough patches of life, you can pick up a copy of Sarah Beckman’s, Alongside: A Practical Guide for Loving Your Neighbor in their Time of Trial, which releases February 14, 2017. www.alongsidebook.com
Sarah Beckman is an author and speaker, living in Albuquerque, NM with her husband, Craig, of 24 years. They have three delightful children ages 15, 17, and 20. Her experience on both sides of the bed—both being helped and helping others—provides her authentic viewpoint for her book, Alongside. When she’s not writing or speaking, you might find her in the kitchen creating something to share with a “neighbor” in need. She has a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and also works as a communications coach and corporate trainer.
Sarah Beckman, Author and Speaker