Words failed me as my close friend shared her grief over a recent loss.
I’d never experienced a similar personal tragedy, so I struggled to figure out what — if anything — to say in response. Aside from “I’m so sorry,” I felt unqualified to speak at all.
That’s when I decided to give up on being articulate. I stopped attempting to say the right words and simply listened. It wasn’t until later that I realized this was exactly what my friend needed from me.
Since that day, I’ve discovered more and more that a “talk less, listen more” response is one of the best gifts I can offer others when life is hard, disappointing or outright devastating.
It’s possible someone in your life is facing a heartbreaking loss right now. Perhaps it’s unemployment, a delayed or unfulfilled dream, a health challenge, a breakup or the death of a loved one. If so, less talking and more listening might be exactly what they need from you too.
Talking less and listening more may sound like a passive activity, but it’s not. Instead, it’s what we call “active listening,” which requires more than simply hearing the words someone else speaks. It calls us to be fully present by focusing our undivided attention on this other person.
In our smartphone culture, it starts with silencing our cell phones. We’re better able to listen well when we aren’t tempted to read texts, answer incoming calls or check our Instagram or Twitter feeds.
Next, active listening puts our nonverbal communication skills to work. Back in my pre-marriage days, I remember my now-husband Ted telling me, “You cannot not communicate.” In one of our early conversations, he had noticed my crossed arms — or what’s termed “closed body language” — and took this as a negative response to what he was saying.
Active listening includes open body language which expresses positive interest and attentiveness. Practice this by making and maintaining eye contact, uncrossing your arms and leaning toward the other person and nodding at appropriate moments in response.
Talking Is Easy, Listening Is Hard
When you and I actively listen, we acknowledge and validate another’s pain, minus any attempts to fix the unfixable. Because the difficult truth is that I can’t heal the brokenhearted, as much as I wish I could. Only God can do that. What I can do, though, is to offer comfort — and for this a deluge of words isn’t required. Yet active listening, sans advice can sometimes be hard.
When I think of those who have struggled with too much talking and too little listening, the disciple Peter immediately comes to mind. Peter had a knack for impetuously, and even brazenly, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. When Jesus spoke of His impending suffering and death, Peter took Jesus aside and corrected him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22). And, when Jesus told His disciples they would all fall away, Peter protested, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matthew 26:33).
Here’s the thing, I believe Peter had good intentions, just like you and I do. Peter desired the best for Jesus. He didn’t want to see His friend and teacher suffer and die, and he certainly couldn’t fathom himself betraying Jesus. After all, he’d given up everything to follow Jesus.
The problem was, though, Peter had a listening problem — and sometimes we do too.
Becoming a Better Listener
So how can you and I be better active listeners, and stifle our inner Peters? Here are a few practical ideas on how to put a “talk less, listen more” response into practice when people you know and love are hurting.
1. Drop your assumptions.
If we’ve suffered a similar loss, it’s easy to assume that we’re experts on someone else’s loss. After all, we’ve been there, done that. We know what it feels like to hurt in a particular situation. And we probably do have unique insights and understandings — at least, more so than someone who’s never walked through a similar loss.
Yet when we identify too closely with someone else’s pain, we sometimes stop listening. We don’t mean to, but we do. We replace listening with assumptions that we know precisely what this person feels and needs.
But no matter how similar our loss, we aren’t an authority on what someone else is going through. C.S. Lewis wrote, as he reflected on the suffering his late wife Joy experienced, that “You can’t really share someone else’s weakness, or fear or pain. What you feel may be bad. It might conceivably be as bad as what the other felt…. But it would still be quite different.”C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 13. We need to remember that every person’s situation and feelings are unique.
So the next time someone you know is suffering, it’s helpful to drop your assumptions. Don’t presume that you know the full story or that you understand exactly how that person is feeling. Because most likely, you don’t. Instead, be open and willing to hear what the other person is feeling, experiencing and thinking.
2. Be empathetic.
Empathy is more than just feeling pity or sorrow for someone — it’s feeling it with them. It’s powerful and meaningful and shows others we’re there for them. Empathy communicates to the person hurting that he or she is not alone.
In John 11, Jesus shows you and me how to practice empathy well. Jesus had recently received word that His close friend Lazarus was deathly ill. Lazarus’ sisters begged Jesus to come quickly to heal him. But, for whatever reason, Jesus didn’t. He ended up arriving four days after Lazarus was buried.
After hearing that His friend was dead, Jesus wept.
The interesting thing is that Jesus had the power to raise Lazarus from the dead — and He planned to do just that. He could have quickly stopped Lazarus’ family and friends from feeling sorrow and mourning. But he didn’t. He didn’t even use a lot of words. Instead, He came alongside them and publicly felt grief with them. He offered them empathy, not an inspiring pep talk.
Author and speaker Joni Eareckson Tada wrote, “This is what you do when someone you love is in anguish; you respond to the plea of their heart by giving them your heart.”Tada, Joni Eareckson and Steve Estes, When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 125. When it comes to empathy, you and I can do the same — by choosing to limit our words and instead feel with our friends who are hurting.
3. Be prepared to speak.
Talking less and listening more doesn’t mean you and I don’t talk at all. It means that when we do speak, we’re careful with our words and keep them few.
Saying, “I’m so sorry” and “I don’t know what to say” are helpful initial responses. These phrases acknowledge loss and validate grief. Also, “I’m here for you” paired with our actual presence communicates love and support.
And, if you are asked for advice, then it’s definitely okay to offer your thoughts and practical ideas. However, I’ve learned it’s good to try to keep that advice from being prescriptive. Using phrases such as “This helped me …” or “One way I …” are ways to gently share counsel with someone else.
A few years after my friend walked through her tragic loss, I faced a similar one. I suddenly had a better understanding of what she’d gone through. Yet when I shared with her my grief, she didn’t try to compare our situations or feelings. Instead, she empathetically listened, and when I asked for advice, she gently encouraged.
And her “talk less, listen more” was just the gift I needed.
Copyright 2018 Ashleigh Slater. All rights reserved.