The other night, one of my kids was at his finest. It was as if a switch had been flipped. He went from easy-going to stonewalling us, arms crossed, resolutely stubborn. And man, was I getting the stinkeye.
Though his attitude was not without consequences, God was kind to me. I think He reminded me that disproportionate reactions are a lot of times symptoms that something deeper’s being triggered. Thankfully, this tipped my husband and I off to dig and uncover the problem more than just slam down the symptom.
Because when you’re going through a hard time, life can feel a little…naked. So our emotional safety is directly tied to the degree of acceptance we sense from someone.
Again, we’re going for a broader, community version of God’s vision for marriage: naked and unashamed.
As this article wisely explains, suffering reduces us. “It lessens [sufferers’] capacities, not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually as well. They become less of themselves. And this is true for unseen wounds just like it is for physical illnesses. While the people may look fine, the mind and heart wounds run deep and affect them profoundly.”
So, the author explains, we also reduce ourselves in their presence. Think of lowering your voice in a hospital room. “We want to use fewer words, quiet voices, and lots of patience and pausing, so they are not overwhelmed.”
A lot more people than I realize are walking around, invisibly crippled. They could have some emotionally baffling responses, seem a bit jittery or hostile. Telling our story–feeling heard–heals. So how can we help a friend get there?
But long before people are hurting, they know whether we’re safe. You might hear this referred to as “passport”: the right to travel into someone’s own private territory, so to speak. Here, some practical ideas for increasing our emotional safety factor.
Create white space in your calendar.
The right to be welcomed into someone’s most vulnerable concerns is earned—through quality time. Small talk. Meaningful gestures when times are hard. Your own vulnerability. (Check out some ideas for each love language here.)
Ixnay on the defensiveness.
(Note to Janel from author: You need to apply this.) Being emotionally safe says, I can stay open to what you have to say, even though I would rather be having a mole removed. This doesn’t mean you have to agree; true care looks like boundaries. But it does mean taking ownership for what is yours–the log in your eye, so to speak. And it means hearing what someone is saying rather than getting hung up on the mental static of how it’s said.
Be just a little intrusive.
My experience: Expecting someone to take the initiative to let me know when they’re trudging through Hades is unrealistic. So I don’t mind gently asking questions that might allow someone the opportunity to talk (…or to not take that opportunity). More often than not, I find that people are waiting, wanting someone to simply ask—maybe questions that weren’t even like those in their heads.
Reiterate what you think they’re saying: “Are you saying that…” “So I hear you saying…” “Am I getting you?” “Is that what you’re trying to say?”
While sympathy is key, adding to drama is not.
Compassion doesn’t mean getting sucked in—at least in a way that perpetuates anger or hurt. This is my weakness: occasionally feeling something so much with someone that I actually don’t help restore or repair. Once, before I met with a friend whose marriage was on the rocks, my husband wisely told me, “Remember to talk to her in a way that helps her to go home and still be married.” He explained that my sympathy could further divide her from her husband—or, alternatively, help her return to her problems with renewed strength, vision, and courage. So yes, hear your friend. Then ask thoughtful questions to help your friend see more of a 360-degrees: “Are there any other reasons that __?” “That sounds incredibly tough. How do you think God’s wanting you to respond?” (More ideas for parents on reducing kid drama–without squashing emotion–here and here.)
If 70 percent of conversation is nonverbal,
what are their tone and body voicing? When do they clam up? When do they look down, or collect tears in their eyes, or lean forward in anger?
We shouldn’t really turn the spotlight for long from the one who’s sharing. One-upmanship can slyly adapt some form of “Oh, that happened to me. But it was much worse/better.” In general when someone’s soul-baring, our own stories should add to their sense of “I think I understand one aspect of this. Tell me more about your experience.” Remember: We reduce ourselves in the presence of suffering.
Anger is a secondary emotion.
Let them find it themselves.
When friends lead me to my own answers, tacking on a few potent insights, it’s 100 percent more effective than their own spiel. Collect a list of poignant questions that gently, respectfully help friends isolate the real issues with which their hearts are colliding:
· What was that like?
· What are you afraid will happen?
· What do you want most to protect, or just avoid?
· I’m hearing that ___ is really important to you. Do you think it’s become too important?
· What do you feel like doing?
· What do you think you need?
· What do you wish you could say?
· What do you wish that person would understand?