What do you do when someone’s life is falling apart and they come to you to talk about it?

I have some ideas that come from a couple different places.  These words come from my experience working as a counselor and my experiences of going to people for help.  They come from listening to many other people talking about the people who tried to help them through their problems, some of whom were tremendously helpful and some of whom caused more harm than healing with their words.  I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of some things that work…and some things that don’t.  I think that most people want to be helpful.  Some are overwhelmed because they know they don’t much.  Others don’t know what they don’t know and plunge in anyway.  Others have been accidentally hurt by the helpers but can’t put their finger on why.

If you’re in one of those groups, or just interested in the inner-mind-world of a counselor, this blog is for you, with love.  J

Number 10 Essential to Remember: Listen, listen, listen. 

If you are the helper, your first task is to gain understanding of who and what you’re dealing with.  Listen carefully and when you think you’ve heard it all, listen more.  Listen with your ears to their words, listen with your eyes to their body language.  Listen with your whole self, show interest, track the conversation, then summarize what they said in a few phrases and repeat it back to them to be sure you heard them right.

By letting a person speak without interruption and judgment, you demonstrate that you are a safe person to whom they can bare their soul.

Remember that if they have come to you in pain, the conversation is about them.  Don’t make it about you and your ideas and your stories and your goals.  Keep the focus on them and their experience and their need and their growth.

Number 9 Essential to Remember:  Keep Your Composure.

Or, said another way, Don’t Freak Out About ANYTHING They Say.

This is related to the idea of, “Judge not.”  When people say, “Hey, don’t judge me,” part of what they are saying is, “Don’t tell me I’m wrong,” but a deeper part of what they are saying is, “Don’t tell me I’m hopeless.  Don’t tell me I’m the problem.  Tell me I’m normal.  Tell me I’m not alone.”  When you condemn a person in pain outright, you might as well kill them right then and there.  When you panic or become angry about something someone says, you communicate that that person is inherently bad, problematic, and isolated in their problematic-ness.  When you remain calm and centered and undisturbed that they are saying these things, you share your peace and calmness with them.  You provide a sanctuary for them.  You communicate that their problem is not the end of the world and  they are not hopeless.

This principle comes from the philosophical viewpoint that people are created in the Image of God and, while very broken and twisted and blind, and inherently filled with God’s redemptive potential.  People are not the problem; people have problems.

Number 8 Essential to Remember.  Practice Empathy.

This could also be said as, “Practice Coming Alongside.”  It means you get in the person’s situation with them, understand what they are feeling and feel it with them.  In the last section, I said not to be disturbed by what people say.  To clarify, I mean to say, “Don’t be bothered by the person, or the fact that the person is saying what they’re saying.”  I do not mean to say, “Don’t be bothered by evil in the world.”  Empathy is, in fact, being bothered by the same evil that afflicts your friend.  If they are sad, be sad with them.  If they are angry, come along side them in their anger.  If they are happy, celebrate with them.  By doing this, you validate their experience and communicate that it is okay for them to exist, even with their problems.

Number 7 Essential to Remember.  Practice Self-Awareness

People react to people.  In counseling, when a client’s problems remind the counselor of his or her own problems, we call it counter-transference.  If you experience counter-transference, it doesn’t mean you can’t help the other person, it just means you have to pay attention to what you’re doing so that you’re still helping the other person and not actually trying to soothe your own pain with another person’s life.  Self-Awareness in a people-helping situation is like a pressure gauge.  You need to know how much of someone’s pain you can handle, otherwise you will get overwhelmed by their overwhelmed-ness and both of you will drown.  Not good.

Number 6 Essential to Remember.  Practice Self-Acceptance, aka, Be Accessible.

This idea addresses how you, the healer, view your own self and experiences.  You don’t have to be perfect.  No one expects you to be perfect, be fixed, or have your life figured out!  No one expects you to be unblemished and have a perfect track record.  In fact, your struggles make you credible and approachable.  Often the very things you have endured can be the points of connection between you and the other person.  Are you okay with yourself?  Are you willing to let your past experiences, even the painful ones, have a part in healing another person?

Disclaimer: Number 6 is not appropriate clinical practice.  In a clinical setting, the helper person must maintain a boundary of very little self-disclosure.  Among friends and mentors, though, mutual experiences are the strength of the relationship.

Number 5 Essential to Remember.  No Clichés!!!

Ideally, you would not give advice at all.  Ideally, you would coach the person into connecting with their spiritual center and finding their own solution.  Ideally you would be saying very little and asking more questions that making statements.  If you absolutely must speak, do not use clichés!  For those of you inclined to use Scripture verses in helping conversations, be very careful.  It’s very easy to throw a good verse around like a bad cliché.  When used this way, even the Holy Bible can cause more harm than good.  On the other hand, if it’s a passage that you’ve studied, understood and internalized and practice in everyday life and one that actually addresses the situation at hand, Scripture can be a wonderful thing!  Otherwise, remember that your words are potent.  Don’t waste them with cheap sayings that don’t mean anything.

Number 4 Essential to Remember.  No Generalizations, Labels or Oversimplifications!

Never say to anyone, “Oh, just do______.”  To say “just do anything” means to say  that that one thing is quite simple and to say that that one person is quite simple and that all problems are simple with clear cut solutions.  Sad to say, but life is not simple.  Problems are even less simple.  People are all unique and messy.  Patterns exists and principles hold true, but they’ll look different for everyone.  Please remember that and do not insult people or disrespect their pain by reducing it to the level of a label just because it’s easier for you to understand.  Explore the complexities of the person’s pain with them.  Learn how their story is unique from all others.  In this way, you will communicate that the person is precious and not cheap and that maybe, just maybe, there was a purpose to their pain.

Number 3 Essential to Remember.  Practice Realistic Expectations or “Don’t Be A Perfectionist.”

If you are in a long term helping relationship that is helping the other person grow, don’t push the person to grow beyond what they are able.  People will grow as far as they can and as fast as they can, but no further or faster.  Also keep in mind that people end up in different places.  The people you help will not be just like you.  This is especially important for parents and pastors and mentors to remember.  They are working with live people, not robots.  Live people are on journeys that are different from ours.  They might end up at about the same place, but take vastly different routes.  And that’s ok.

Further, when thinking about perfectionism, remember that a helping conversation is about healing, not about productivity.  Healing never starts with behavior; it always starts with heart intent.  If you make a person’s healing process all about meeting a particular behavioral standard, it’s very easy to overwhelm a broken person before they have a chance to heal and built up strength.

Number 2 Essential to Remember.  Practice Emotional Awareness

God made us to have emotions.  Emotions are to be encouraged.  Emotions are to be expressed.  Emotions do not kill us; they are meant to be felt.  Addictions have their root in suppressed and avoided emotions.  Depression and Anxiety result from not knowing how to handle feelings.  Relationships live or die based on the people’s ability to connect with each other emotionally.  Know what you are feeling.  Help the other person feel feelings too.

Number 1 Essential to Remember.  Remember that you will NOT Fix Anything. 

This is not your role.  That’s not why you are there.  God does the healing.  God does it deep within the person.  You are a supporter, a friend, a partner.  You are there so they don’t have to be alone in their pain and healing.  At most, you are someone who has been in that situation before and can say what is coming next.  You are neither able nor responsible to fix the other person.  If you remember this, then you save yourself the stress of trying to do work that is not yours.  If you remember this, then you guard yourself against the disappointment if the person makes an unhealthy choice.  If you remember this, then you are free to simply love and be with the person.  You can relax and just enjoy the privilege of joining with the other person in their growth.

And like anything, taking the role of a people-helper is a process.  It’s an art.  No one starts out perfectly.  No one is always smooth and eloquent.  No one is able to help everyone in their lives.

Everyone is unique.  Everyone has different values and a different style.  And okay!  It means you will connect with people that I will not.  Hopefully between all of us people-helpers, no one will ever lack a listening ear when they have a broken heart.

May God’s healing presence be with you to bring you peace…