Do You Think They Want Your Words?

No Words

She abruptly stopped talking as we stood outside her front door. She asked if we could wait here a minute. We said yes.

When she came back, she handed us a piece of paper. On the front was a picture of a man. On the back was his funeral program.

Our friend explained that this was her brother. He had committed suicide on Thanksgiving Day.

She was still reeling from the loss. She went back inside and brought out more photos of her brother.

She needed to show who he was. She needed to talk about him.

We said relatively little.

Who Cares?

Often we’re caught off guard by the stories that people share with us. If we just happen to be in the right place at the right time, we might catch the overflow of emotions from someone else’s pain.

But what about when we know in advance that they’re hurting?

  • How often do we intentionally step into another person’s heartache?
  • Are we more likely to run into the pain or run away from it?
  • And if we do choose to avoid it, why?

For me, I often allow my doubts and fears to override my good intentions. I’m afraid I won’t know what to say.

Or I’m afraid I’ll say the wrong thing (because sometimes I do). So I don’t even show up.

If the only choices I see are perfect or nothing, I’m tempted to choose nothing at all.

Which leaves the other person thinking I care nothing at all.

A Different Focus

Likely we’ve all been on both sides of this. Sometimes we’re the one who doesn’t show up. And sometimes we’re the one that others don’t show up for.

In both scenarios, we hurt.

What can we do about it?

If possible (and granted, it isn’t always possible), if your friend is hurting, bolster your courage to show up in person by knowing this truth:

It’s less about what you’ll say, and more about what you’ll hear.

Otherwise, when we assume the opposite—when we think what we will say is more important than what they will say—we shut the other person down.

Release the pressure on yourself to have the right words.

You’re not there to take away their pain; you’re there to make room for it.

Let go of what you think you should say. Focus more on what they are saying.

People feel loved more when they are seen and heard.

Grace Flows

But what about when you are the one with the heavy heart?

Be honest with your friend who wants to help. If they do unintentionally say the “wrong” thing to you (give them the benefit of the doubt when possible), it’s okay to gently let them know that they’re making your pain worse.

And if they truly want to be helpful, they will listen to you and believe what you’re saying. They will change their words or behaviors going forward.

Grace flows easier when we’re invited to participate in the conversation about our own pain.

Connect More, Heal More

Bottom line, when someone around you is hurting, make it more about them than about you. Listen more than you talk.

And when you are hurting, allow yourself to be vulnerable in the presence of a safe and trusted friend. (Never obligate yourself to spill your guts to just anyone!)

What we all need—whether we’re the one doing the consoling or we’re the one in pain—is to feel community. More connections make the load easier to bear.

Our imperfect presence matters more than our perfectionistic absence.

By being human together, we’re being Jesus to each other. This is one way God works in the world.

Use Your Ears

We listened to our friend at the door as she shared more about her brother. She cried. We cried.

We had no magic words to relieve her pain. We had no advice to give or stories to share. We felt we had done so little as we walked away.

Because our friend was still sad, of course.

But we could also tell she had felt seen, which is something we all want.

When space opens up to relay our suffering with other human beings, everyone is the better for it.

If lending our ears more than our mouths can make even a small difference, may we all learn to listen more and talk less.

“Funny, how we worry about having the right thing to say, when listening is so often what people need most.”
– Anonymous

Who has really listened to your pain? Did it help? Share in the comments.

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15 thoughts on “Do You Think They Want Your Words?

  1. Natalie Ogbourne

    We talked about this very thing in Sunday school just this week. A mom who’d lost an 18-day-old son said that some of the most comforting words she heard were these: I don’t know what to say. Honest and present. Those things require vulnerability that, on my own, I don’t often have. Thanks for bringing this back to my mind.

  2. Trudy

    “Listen more and talk less” is such great advice, Lisa. Yes, everyone needs to be seen and heard to feel more loved. Thank you for this important reminder! Love and blessings to you!

  3. David

    The temptation is strong to try and make it better, to find just the right thing to say (to *show* we understand?) but perhaps what is really required is to listen sensitively and keep them company. The gift we give is space and time.

    Talking with an aunt over Christmas, who had lost her husband late in the year, she said even the most well-meaning people didn’t really understand, nothing they said made any difference. You have to work through your grief in your own way and at your own pace.

  4. Donna

    Lisa, wonderful and much needed advice in our current world. “less is always more”. As we know here at hospice, compassionate listening is the best balm for a grieving heart.
    The best comfort we can offer a grieving person is to make space for their grief, not try to mitigate or remove it. One of our best counselors once said, when we refuse to make space for another’s grief, or fill the space with words meant to remove their grief, we inflict a deeper wound. Because denying a person’s grief, is the same as denying the person’s love for the person they lost.

  5. Jeanne Takenaka

    Lisa, this post is so powerful.

    First, I loved this: “You’re not there to take away their pain; you’re there to make room for it.” Actually, all of your words spoke to me, but this reminded me of my purpose when I’m with a friend in pain.

    Years ago, a dear friend and her husband in another state lost their first son to complications from some birth defects. They were, understandably, devastated. This was back before cell phones were a thing. They asked for people to not contact them for a while. When the time was right, I began writing her letters. Eventually, she wrote back. As we wrote and then began talking on the phone, we began to talk about their loss. She told me something I’ll never forget. Most people, because they didn’t know what to say, stopped showing up at all. She was thankful for the people who showed up, even if what they said wasn’t quite right. They showed up.

    As other friends have lost loved ones, I’ve found that “I’m so sorry” goes a long way, especially when there is no thing I can say that will make things right. Just reaching out through text or a note, even if they don’t reach back, speaks love to people who are hurting. Anyway, I’m rambling. I loved this post.

  6. Susan Nowell @ My Place to Yours

    Lisa, there’s so much good insight in this post. Thank you for encouraging us as readers to be present in someone’s pain. It reminded me of a post I wrote many years ago about choosing to “do the awkward” and to be there for someone who is hurting. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do (and do again and again), but (as you stated so well) oh, so necessary! Here’s my post if anyone wants to stay present in this topic awhile longer.

  7. Joanne Viola

    Lisa, sometimes a person just needs to know they were seen or heard. There is no worse feeling than feeling like one is invisible. I think at times, we can say the most when we say nothing at all.

  8. Jean Wise

    lots of truth in that quote: “Funny, how we worry about having the right thing to say, when listening is so often what people need most.”
    I wonder how much more peaceful the world would be if we listened to understand more that yapping or barely hearing the others. Good thoughts here today, Lisa!

  9. Barbara Harper

    This is such a good reminder that we need to listen more than worry about saying the right words (though I pray I’ll say something helpful and not harmful). I also like the point about making room for the pain rather than trying to make things better.

  10. Tea With Jennifer

    Yes listening is paramount in such circumstances.

    Unfortunately, when we’re in such emotional pain our social filters are compromised & this is why so many people, who are really hurting, will share their deep emotional pain with complete strangers.

    Knowing this beforehand can help us to go to trusted relationships though.
    Blessings sweet friend, Jennifer

  11. Lois Flowers

    I LOVE this post, Lisa… what a wonderful gift you gave your friend. Years ago, I used to feel I had to have just the right comforting answer for people. No wonder I always felt clumsy when I was trying to “comfort” like that. I’m so thankful for the dear friends who listened to me in my grief and taught me the value of an empathetic heart.

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