Have you ever tried to open up to someone about a hardship going on in your life, hoping to find support or be comforted and instead you walked away feeling even more alone and frustrated than when the conversation started? One thing I have learned through observing others conversations, counseling, and my own experiences, is how incredibly important it is to be really present to others, when they finally take a leap to open up and be vulnerable about what is going on in their hearts, minds and spiritual lives. For someone to share deeply is a great honor, and it saddens me that so often these opportunities are lost because the person on the receiving end doesn’t know how to respond. As a culture, in general, I think we really stink at knowing how to comfort each other. Even within the Church, I think there can be a HUGE improvement in this aspect (don’t just throw a bible verse at someone who is in the midst of trying to share their pain). The sixth spiritual work of mercy calls us as Christians to “comfort the afflicted”. The afflicted can be anyone experiencing suffering – at home, in Church, at work, in line at the grocery store. For us to be able to truly live out this spiritual work of mercy, we have to have a level of self-awareness regarding the way we offer comfort, and the messages we send to others as we listen to them.
Disclaimer: I label my subsections humorously, not to belittle anyone, but to help paint a picture. (I have been all 3 of these at various times, my sweet husband can attest to this).
These are the 3 non-helpful responses I came up with when trying to comfort someone that’s struggling:
The Advice Giver:
This person tends to instantly jump into giving advice. “You’re struggling with something?” Their response: “Just trust in Jesus.” “You’re having difficulties with your children?” Their response: “Just do this…” Instead of listening to what you’re going through, the advice giver will start launching into ways to fix the problem, or find solutions you could start trying. This person may have genuinely good advice, but their timing in learning when to share it, really needs some discernment. Some advice can be appropriate to give (at the right time), but when someone has just begun to open up and share about a difficulty, that is typically not the most effective time. I can guarantee you that they are not going to feel supported if you cut them off, and start offering them advice right away. Instead, they will most likely shut down if they feel like you care more about giving advice, than understanding their struggles. Hear them out. Let them express their concerns, struggles, pain. Empathize with where they’re at. “This must be such a difficult time for you right now.” “I can understand why you’re struggling with this.” Then ask if you can share something you’ve learned or experienced, with them. People are much more receptive to listen to advice once they feel heard and cared about first.
The Conversation Hijacker:
The conversation hijacker manages to take every opportunity of sharing about themselves. This is not necessarily done intentionally, but it can still be frustrating and hurtful to the other person. For example, someone opens up about something going on in their life, and hijacker responds to them by launching into a story about their own problems. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen this happen to people in conversations, and how many times I have experienced this myself. When I see this happening, I usually cringe inside, because I know that the person who was trying to share, is probably going to walk away feeling like, “why bother opening up to anyone?” When I have asked some of my clients why they don’t open up to other people, I have had many tell me, “what’s the point, nobody cares anyways.” This is heartbreaking. This is a wake up call for each of us to become more aware of how we handle ourselves in conversations with others. Do we speak more than we listen? Do we jump in and cut people off? Do we make everything about us? Unfortunately, the message of the hijacker is that they are more interested in sharing about themselves, than listening to anyone else.
So many people in our culture are hurting and are DESPERATE to have someone hear their pain, but if we all don’t learn how to listen and hear the others pain, then we will use every moment we can, to only share our own. This ruins the chances of people ever wanting to open up to us again. What’s the point if that person that you try to talk to always makes it about themselves? Mother Teresa has a “humility list” and the very first point she makes on her list is this, “Speak as little as possible about yourself.” This doesn’t mean we never speak about ourselves or share ourselves with others, but in moments when we need to get outside of ourselves, to be present to someone else who is having a tough time, we need to pray for the grace to not make everything about ourselves.
The Topic Switcher:
This person is uncomfortable with hearing others struggles so they like to change the conversation. Quickly. It’s obvious when someone tries to do this because they will try to transition to something more lighthearted or unrelated, to avoid the current topic. I think most people that struggle with being vulnerable get really squeamish when they see someone else trying to be vulnerable and open. They may fear that they don’t know what to say to the other person, so they quickly try to move on to something else. It may also be pressing on a wound of theirs from something they are trying to avoid in their own lives. There can be multiple reasons for why this person tries to change the conversation, but this can often leave the other person feeling completely devalued and unacknowledged. I always recommend that if someone is feeling anxious about knowing what to do or say to comfort someone, that they be honest and just say, “I really want to say something right now to offer you comfort, but I honestly am not even sure what to say. I want you to know that I appreciate you opening up to me. Is there something more I can do to help?” Something as simple as that can let the person know that what they just shared matters to you, and that even though you might not know what to say in response to their struggle, you still desire to hear and support them. Ultimately, isn’t that what most of us want? To know that people care, love and value us? To know that we are not alone and that our struggles are acknowledged and our pain is seen? This in itself is so healing.
Jesus is Our Ultimate Comforter:
I think it goes without saying that Jesus is the ultimate comforter. We will make mistakes and mess things up with our interactions with others, but He will fill in the gaps and make up for what we lack. He is the only one who won’t ever let us down, and who can truly bring our hearts the peace and comfort that we need. When I am feeling let down or frustrated by someone’s response after I try sharing something with them, I am reminded that they are human and Jesus is Divine, so ultimately, He has to be the one to bring me solace. To place unrealistic expectations on others to give something that they don’t have to give. will only leave us feeling defeated and closed off. But, I do think there can be SO much healing to offer others when we learn how to truly comfort and listen to one another, the way Christ shows us how to do all throughout the Gospels. I have encountered so many instances where someone listened to me and conveyed empathy for what I was going through, and in that moment, my cross felt a little lighter. It is a beautiful gift when we can comfort the afflicted, since we are all that afflicted person at various times in our lives. We must learn to ask the Holy Spirit for words to speak ,and pray for the grace to get outside of ourselves in those moments. Saying something as simple as, “Lord, help me not make this conversation about myself or my own problems and help me instead be present to _______ who needs to be comforted more than I do right now.” If we can live out this prayer then I think so many spirits will be lifted through their encounters with us.
2018 Drewe DeJesus
Photo by Rosie Fraser at Freely Photos