As a counselor, I had to learn that keeping my mouth shut was sometimes the best response.
If a person is grieving, for example, few words are truly helpful. If a friend is testing me to see if I really want to hear what he has to say, my staying silent and calmly looking at him with acceptance tells him I'm ready and waiting for him to talk. I have learned to "read" the other person's facial expressions (tense or relaxed face) and body language (arms folded or leaning toward me), to discern if a person really wants to talk. If I'm not sure, I've found it best to wait quietly or ask an open-ended question like, "What are you thinking or feeling right now?"
I'm amazed at the healing effect when someone gives full attention in supportive silence. Perhaps you too have experienced the conversational gift when a loved one exercised the discipline of silently hearing you out instead of contradicting or trying to fix what you think. I know I've judiciously listened to someone when she says, "Thanks for listening! I know now what I need to do." What did I do? What insights did I offer that brought a sense of calmness and direction? Very little. I simply listened in attentive silence. You can too.
The most common and serious error a person makes is trying to solve the problem for a friend. Ask yourself if you tend to be too ready to give advice, instruction, logic, or "answers" in hopes of relieving a friend's confusion or emotional struggle. Ask a close friend, "Do I tend to talk too much or at the wrong time? Please be candid with me. I really want to know."
Rather than responding with "answers," maybe the other person is most helped when you know how he feels. Maybe he needs you to just listen. Healing happens best when you help your friends discover their own answers by asking relevant questions or just letting them think out loud.
Let me give you a real-life example. In the course of several years, the Bayly family lost three of their children. In The Last Thing We Talk About, Joe Bayly shared his feelings about two friends who tried to help when one of his children died.
"I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God's dealings,
of why it happened, of hope beyond the grave.
He talked constantly. He said things I knew were true.
I was unmoved, except to wish he'd go away. He finally did.
Another came and sat beside me. He didn't talk. He didn't ask me leading questions.
He just sat beside me for an hour and more, listened when I said something,
answered briefly, prayed simply, left.
I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go."
Your supportive silence can make a difference to people in crisis. You will need to be mentally disciplined; you don't need to answer every question. You can develop skills that help to heal deep suffering.
Developing your skills in listening can change your life and that of your friends. Nothing matches the deep satisfaction in your companions when you use the tool of listening well. You grow relationships; you find happiness.
Who do you need to listen well today?
Paul W. Swets