For the last six and a half years, I’ve worked with survivors of human trafficking and done some lay-counseling. Often, when people hear, they’ll say things like, “I don’t know how you do it. That sounds overwhelming. I couldn’t handle hearing those types of stories. I’d have no idea what to say—what to do.” I understand their sentiments.
Presence is a strange dichotomy. It is both fragile and arduous.
But we live in a world full of people. We engage family, friends, co-workers, and grocery store clerks. Presence is a part of our shared humanity. It’s not a matter of whether you engage others in need, but the quality in which you do so.
How do we care for someone facing an unexpected diagnosis, disappointment, or betrayal? What might we say to someone who suffers chronic pain as a result of injury or mystery? Or when they’ve lost someone because of death or divorce? What do we offer someone when their child is wobbling on the razor’s edge of depression or addiction?
A canned response is insufficient. It wreaks havoc and exacerbates loneliness. So, how do we walk alongside with others well?
We Listen Sacrificially
Listening well is sacrificial. We must strain for attention. It requires we quiet our mind. We focus on the words and phrases the person has accessible to describe what is happening in and around them. We notice how the weight of their body shifts when they muster courage to say what they hadn’t prepared. Or when their mouth falls silent. We see when the flash-flood or fire begins to overwhelm their eyes. Listening requires we are expectant while revelations form and they process their thoughts. We communicate, with and without words, their experience matters to us— they matter to us.
We Build Empathy
Empathy doesn’t demand we’ve experienced what the person before us is facing. We can recall our own heartbreaks, failures, and fears. When we heed our vulnerabilities, we better grasp what is at risk for the other person. Empathy acts as a bridge to sincere connection and dismantles hierarchy. We don’t feel for them, but with them. In fact, biology now proves it. Neuroscientists discovered that humans experience empathy through complex mirror neuron systems. Mirror neurons act by reflecting back actions we observe in others. Empathy is a shared experience.
We Share Meaningfully
Sometimes, after someone has shared something difficult, we don’t know what to say. That’s okay. In fact, sometimes a brief pause can be quite powerful. Caring for the person can be as simple as saying, “I am taking in what you said. I don’t have many words right now, but I am here with you.”
But when we do respond, we keep the focus of the conversation on the other person. They are the beneficiary. Saying, “I know exactly how you feel…,” or something to that effect, is actually about you. And the truth is, you don’t. Statements like that lead to assumption-making, and we miss the person. That is opposite of our intent. Instead, acknowledge their difficulty. Consider what may be most helpful for them. If we’re not sure, we can ask them: “What do you think you need right now?” Asking purposed questions is a powerful way to invite continued connection. We can also ask the indwelling Spirit for wisdom and discernment who empowers us for service.
We Pray Confidently
Throughout Scripture, God declares himself a God who sees, hears and knows. In times of distress, he calls himself a refuge and strength. In our need, God invites us to come. God’s unwavering pursuit and unshakable love for us is most evident when he sent his Son, Jesus. Jesus put on humanity. He experienced temptation and suffered. Thus he understands and sympathizes with our weaknesses. Jesus conquered the power and penalty of sin for us through his death and resurrection. Now, nothing separates us from his love. Jesus is our Wonderful Counselor and Prince of Peace. We can trust him with ourselves and confidently pray for those who are in need.