Have you ever been in a situation where a friend or family member was going through a challenging time and you wished you knew exactly the right way to help? It can be a real challenge to find the appropriate words to say in such situations and mostly there is no such thing as “the right” words. Life events such as death, divorce, illness, accidents and job loss can place people under enormous stress, chaos and grief. On the other side of the coin, it can be very painful for friends and family to watch their loved ones suffer; they see them falling apart but are helpless and powerless to change their new reality.
Many years ago, a friend was going through a personal crisis and I was terribly concerned about her. My overriding urge was to make her feel better but I didn’t know what to say to her. So I did my best to cheer her up and gave her some advice, all in a vain attempt to rescue her from her distress. I now understand that my desire to rescue her was driven by my own intense discomfort with her pain. Yet at the time I was overwhelmed and frightened by the enormity of her situation. My life experience simply hadn’t prepared me for serious suffering and I was in desperate need of some effective life skills.
On the recommendation of a friend, I enrolled in Lifeline’s telephone counselling training and immersed myself in learning basic communication skills in a counselling context. Somewhere along the way I was profoundly transformed by what I was learning. I felt for the first time in my life that I had woken up and was looking at the world with completely new eyes. That’s transformation for you. It wakes you up like a splash of water in the face and says don’t look back: it’s no longer where you are headed. So with great fear and much excitement, I left my corporate job and undertook formal counselling studies, and have since devoured everything I can in my quest to understand human nature.
It was on my first phone call at Lifeline that I discovered the profound blessing that is counselling. At a basic level, a caller is in distress and an empathic counsellor is willing to listen non-judgmentally. At a deeper level, something sacred is occurring. It is the privilege of being invited into another person’s world, to witness their life story and to listen deeply from the heart. Simply connecting with another human being with true presence and awareness is a profoundly moving experience. My clients have taught me much more than I could possibly learn in my day-to-day life. That to be human is to feel great joy and deep suffering. As a counsellor, I see human suffering in its many guises and it brings great compassion to my heart and deep gratitude for the blessings in my life.
Whilst my experience led to a career change; not everyone needs to become a counsellor to learn how to support others through their suffering. The self-help industry is full to the brim with resources on communication skills. Yet when people are in crisis, their world is so overwhelming that the best thing you can do is to keep it simple. To have empathy, to show up and to listen.
Empathy is stepping out of your way of seeing the world and doing your best to see the situation from the other person’s viewpoint. Showing up is giving them your full attention and presence; really being there for them. Listening is giving the person the space to talk, really hearing what they are saying and then conveying your understanding back to them. It is listening with the intent to understand rather than to respond. It can also mean knowing when to be silent. Sometimes the simple things are the hardest to do. Yet rest assured, your presence is the greatest gift you have to offer.