How to Approach People in Distress

May 8, 2017

HelpingI recall going through one particularly challenging time in my life. Realizing I could no longer manage this fight on my own, I found the courage to reach out to a good friend. I provided him with a glimpse of my painful reality and then waited for his response. His eyes darted back and forth, his hand patted me on the right shoulder three times, and he quickly said, “You are a good guy Al, you will figure it out.” Then he ran like the wind, appearing as though he couldn’t wait to escape his discomfort.
Clearly, my pain made him uncomfortable and he was not sure how to respond. I firmly believe that nobody needs to be fixed, but the value of been seen and heard is immeasurable. Men in particular often have a desire to fix things when they believe that something requires attention. Personally, I don’t measure up to this stereotype. I know that cars have four tires and that is about the extent of my knowledge. However, I still feel that innate need to fix situations around me. My good wife will often tell me, “Al, I don’t need you to fix me, I just need you to listen.”
When we see someone in pain, we can simply approach them and say something such as, “I’m not trying to be nosy, but I just wanted to let you know that I’m concerned. If you ever need to talk, I’m here to listen.”
We all want to be seen and we all want to be heard. This simple statement above says, “I see you and I acknowledge your pain.” Secondly, your invitation to listen provides them with the potential to feel heard.
The individual may not accept your invitation immediately, but they may walk through your door days or even months later. If they do take this step, it is essential that you drop what you are doing and actively listen. Recognize that this individual just took a courageous step forward, and failure to acknowledge their courage could cause them to take two steps backwards.
I am convinced that everyone wants to express their pain, but many simply do not know how to do this. In a last effort to keep their wall of defenses up, I have had clients say, “You can’t possibly understand what I have gone through!”
If we respond by saying, “Oh yes I can. I went through abuse, mental illness, divorce, etc.”, we are moving in the wrong direction. This is not about us, it’s about them. Their last piece of the wall falls when we respond with four simple words: “Help me to understand.”
Just like that, you will see the person let their guard down, and the words will spill out. The moment that they are able to release some of their darkness, healing will begin. From that point forward, all that you need to do is listen.
The problem is that the act of listening is often easier said than done. Countless individuals lack the skill to listen. I mean really listen. As a child, I sat in countless classrooms and studied subjects such as math, science and history. However, schools never offered a class on listening.
Our biggest challenge is that we often do not listen to understand, but rather to respond. For example, perhaps an individual just shared with you that their loved one was recently diagnosed with cancer. Rather than listening, you cut them off and begin to tell them how your mom also had cancer. While your intentions might be great, again remember that this is not about you, but rather them.
Think about some of your recent conversations. How much of the time was spent with you talking? How much of the time was spent with you listening?
Listening is a skill, and when there is motivation to listen, it can certainly be taught. In the workplace, small gestures have the ability to influence the overall environment of the workplace. More importantly, you have the ability to change someone’s life.
* The above is an excerpt from Goodbye Stress. Hello Life!

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