I can make a guarantee without any fear of being wrong. I guarantee that either you or someone close to you is hurting at this moment. It may be physical, it may be emotional, it may be in a relationship, it may be cancer, or it may be loss of some kind or other. Have you ever wondered how to help the person you know who is hurting; having the right thing to say or do to be of real help? If it’s you who is hurting, do you know how to receive the help you need to grow and become more of the person you want to become? Read on…
How many times have you heard, and been hurt by, cliche phrases life: “There are more fish in the sea”, or “Well, at least you still have…”? It makes sense that you’ve been hurt by others who simply don’t know what to say in order to help on some level. Or maybe you have someone who you would like to comfort and you are avoiding them because you don’t know what to say (and definitely do NOT want to say something trite to increase their pain).
I currently have a few friends who are struggling in various ways in life. The last time I was with one of them I asked, point blank, “In what ways have people supported you best throughout the last year and in what ways would you feel best supported moving forward?” We had a lengthy conversation about this, but what came out of our discussion can be summed up in one word: Connection. He said that the people who listened, who spent time with him even when it was difficult, and who stayed connected on a consistent basis regardless of whether or not he always responded were those who loved him best.
The truth is, we need connection because we are social beings. There are numerous studies that show that when a person is connected well in a healthy community they are less likely to struggle with any type of addictive behavior, less likely to experience mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and more likely to work through problems more quickly in life. I believe this will make sense to you, so I’ll move on to a question that must be raised at this point: How do you connect with someone who may not seem like they want to connect?
Here are 2 things you can do with anyone you know, and even those who you don’t know, that will create safety quickly in your communication and help the other person feel heard and understood:
1. Listen. We hear about the importance of listening all the time, but I want to encourage you to REALLY listen to the other person. Listen not only to their words but also the emotion behind the words. A couple months ago at a wedding reception my son saw me grab a dessert with gluten in it (I have a gluten sensitivity) and state in an angry sounding voice: “Daddy, don’t eat that!” I responded by asking him if he was scared that the gluten would hurt me. He immediately got quiet, said yes, and we simply snuggled for a couple of minutes. This was a beautiful connection becuase I was willing to listen to his heart rather than simply his words and intonation.
2. Ask open-ended questions. Many questions we ask others are used for simple information gathering; What is your favorite color? Was that difficult? Did you try…? In these questions you are controlling the answer to a great degree. In open-ended questions you are giving control of the answer away. Here are some examples: What was that like? How have you been able to cope? What has helped the most? What are some of the hardest things about being where you are? If you are unsure about what to ask you can always be vulnerable yourself and admit it: “I don’t have the right words right now, but I really want to understand this and it sounds so hard. Please help me understand”. When you show sincere vulnerability the other person will almost always be willing to do so as well.
What if you are struggling yourself and realize you need to connect? You know yourself and your own situation, but I believe these tips will help. Be vulnerable with others, but be picky with who you choose to be vulnerable with. We all have people who are safer than others in our lives. I have close relatives who I care about and respect, but who aren’t safe for me to share at all because they have difficulty getting themselves out of the way to be there for me. Know that if you can only think of 1 or 2 people who are safe you are doing well. The majority of people I know would consider it a gift to have 2 safe people in their lives! The other thing you can do is to ask for help. Why is it so easy to give help to others but so difficult to receive or even ask for it? That’s a topic for a different post. Know that you will quickly discover the people in your life that are life-long, reliable friends. I’m not saying it will be easy, but if you are someone who typically doesn’t ask for help my guess is that you’ll hear ‘yes’ more often than be given an excuse not to. Lastly, if there is really no one person you feel safe with spend the money investing in yourself by finding a qualified counsellor. You will be amazed at how quickly someone who listens well can be a comfort for you and allow you to explore and process what’s happening in your head.
As I write these words I have been reminded that there is someone who has struggled with some life stuff in the past couple of years and when I try to connect he often tells me he’s too busy or, it seems to me, brushes me off in some other way. As I finish this post I will be setting up a time to hang out with him even if he doesn’t immediately seem up to it. While I will be respectful, I will make sure I’m willing to gently push through some barriers if needed and work to become safe for him. Often it takes some proof that I am willing to do what is needed to be safe in order for someone hurting to open up, but true connection is always worth the effort.