At first, the silence on the other end of the phone is awkward.
Now, it’s painful.
When she speaks, her tone leaves no doubt.
I’ve done it again–said exactly the wrong thing.
Hurt someone I meant to help.
When Help Hurts
Today, I wouldn’t consider telling an acquaintance who has just miscarried, “It’s almost like a compliment from the enemy that he’s trying so hard to take you out.”
Two decades ago, when I was utterly incapable of tolerating my own pain, let alone anyone else’s, I intended to offer sympathy.
I meant well, but what I said was still wrong. So very wrong.
Sometimes, we try the very best we can, and it’s still really bad. After all, nobody teaches us how to face pain. We just spend our lives avoiding it.
A former student just saw Inside Out and texted me, “I needed this movie so much when I was little.”
“So did I,” I sent back.
When I was little, I learned to hide. I hid my own pain. And I hid from others’ pain.
I needed to see Sadness sit down next to Bing-Bong, place her hand on his arm, and say, “That’s sad.”
I needed someone to teach me that what helps isn’t saying the right thing or doing the right thing. What helps is being right there.
When we don’t know how to hold space for someone who is hurting, we use cliches to dress up our own discomfort.
But we can learn a healthier way.
Before Saying Anything
We can learn to P.A.U.S.E. before opening our mouths.
1 – Pray for guidance. Consciously open yourself to the Holy Spirit’s leading. Invite God to replace your jumbled thoughts with His wisdom. Ask, “What would Jesus do, right here, right now?” and listen for a personalized answer for your present circumstance.
2 – Assess your shared history. Have you earned the privilege of speaking into this person’s life right now? Are you strangers? acquaintances? casual friends? close friends? family? How does this person tend to signal what she needs? How have you sought permission to help in the past?
3 – Understand your own motives. Are you responding intentionally to the Holy Spirit’s leading? Or are you reacting impulsively from your own discomfort and fear? Are you actively seeking to discover this person’s needs? Or are you desperately trying to meet your own need to look good, feel better, or seem caring?
4 – Sense how the other person is doing. Notice her body language and facial expressions: What is she telling you non-verbally? Does she look tired? Might she be hungry or thirsty? Don’t try to be a mind-reader, but do take time to really see her.
5 – Empathize rather than sympathize. According to Brene Brown, “Empathy fuels connection; sympathy fuels disconnection.” Empathy includes taking on the perspective of another person, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in another person, and communicating your willingness to feel with them. “Empathy is a choice. And it’s a vulnerable choice, because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” (See link below for a 3-minute video that shows empathy vs. sympathy.)
What to Say
I asked my fabulous Bravery Buddies,
- What words actually “work” for you and others, both as receiver and sender?
- Under what circumstances? How about non-verbal actions?
- How do you discern when to speak and when to stay silent?
- How do others know when to speak and when to stay silent with you?
- How do you decide when to take action and when to wait to act?
Here’s what they shared:
- Ecclesiastes 3:7 “… a time to be silent and a time to speak…”
- I think it has to do with taking enough time to listen to the other person that they feel you’ve connected. And acknowledging the situation in the words; i.e., I know this situation stinks and it is difficult to see it right now, but God does have good plans for you.
- Phrases where I’ve felt free to share: “How are you, really?” … “What can I do for you?” … “How can I pray for you?” … “Can I give you feedback on…?” The last one gives me a minute and lets me give the person permission to speak into my situation.
- “I’m so sorry” helps me to feel heard and cared for.
- I once had a conversation where a friend said, “I’m sure that you’ve prayed about this and spent time taking it to God. I’m 100 % behind you and there for you whatever you need.” I felt empowered rather than deflated by her words.
- Non-verbal: just being with me. Like Job’s friend that sat quiet. What prompts my word: the Holy Spirit. I usually check my heart before opening my mouth.
- Hugs are great. Also, I once had a friend say to me “What can I do?” instead of “Is there anything I can do?”
- While I was in treatment for breast cancer I found sometimes the “good words” others shared sometimes shattered me. And when I was low, I had to isolate myself or avoid cliche-ers. A good friend shared this article “How Not To Say the Wrong Thing.” I still go back to what I received from others and this article.
- I just need someone to validate what I’m feeling. To know I’m not crazy since that is what I get at home. I need someone to cry with me and then let me know they can relate. And if they can’t, then just trying to relate helps. I don’t need someone to promote the old “smile even though it hurts” attitude. I think when you are highly sensitive you just need someone to let you know it’s ok to feel what you’re feeling.
- The best thing someone ever said was “This must be so hard for you.” Then she hugged me and told me she loved me. I think it was the validation that made it meaningful. She didn’t try to solve my problem, but she acknowledged it. Then she just let me know that she sympathized and that she cared.
- “That totally stinks” … “I honestly have no idea what to say” … “Sometimes I just don’t get it” I think just validating and listening are so empowering! And then, put action in place of answers! Follow up! Text! Call! Pray! Send a card!
- When I was going through my breast cancer I has several friends say, “I don’t know what you are going through but I’m here.” That was very helpful…the acknowledgement that they didn’t understand everything I was feeling but they were there for me. I try to “show up” and just be present with people…offering hugs and sharing tears…often just sitting in silence with someone. I will often say “I can’t imagine what you are feeling or going through but I’m so sorry for your pain (or fear, etc.)” I try to validate what they are feeling whether it is fear, anger, pain, whatever.
- Loss—especially loss of life—commands respect, and we who witness hurt are called to honor the hurting properly. We see a perfect example of this in the Jewish mourning ritual of shiva. For starters, mourners customarily sat on low stools or the floor, symbolizing the emotional reality of being brought low by grief . . . Silence was a key element of shiva, as visitors would not speak at all unless mourners first initiated conversation. So often misfortune leaves us embarrassed and tongue-tied, and even our most heartfelt eloquence can be so much pointless drivel to those who mourn. The Jews understood what we tend to forget—that sometimes the most comforting thing we can say is nothing at all. With our silence, we acknowledge both the profundity of grief and the inadequacy of human wisdom before it. (excerpted from Pam Richard Watts’ “Football Shiva“)
Tomorrow, we’ll explore “Who Christian Cliches Actually Can Help.” Today, we’ll wrap up with a powerful truth from Brene Brown:
“Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”
Pam Richard Watts’ “Football Shiva”
Sheri Pool Dacon’s “There Are No Perfect Churches” and Other Conversation Enders”
Lauren Littauer Briggs’ The Art of Helping: What to Say and Do When Someone is Hurting
Bene Brown’s the difference between Sympathy and Empathy (can’t view embedded video? Click here to watch it directly on YouTube!)