You have a good heart, You want to be a good friend. People who don’t care about that wouldn’t have decided to read this article.
Before I share the ways to be a good friend and to be a good parent, you should know the biggest key here is how to listen with your whole heart so someone feels deeply heard and seen, and therefore feels worthy of your time and love.
Your attention is the best gift you can give a person. And when that person is hurting this is especially important.
What makes people hurt?
Emotional pain can come from many things. It comes from abuse, betrayal, dismissal, loss, criticism, disrespect, exclusion, disappointment, physical pain, and so much more. These happen in the context of our lives, but emotional pain can also come from the context inside our minds. For example, negative self-judgment that comes from self-doubt and depression, and negative intrusive thoughts that come from anxiety hurt us immensely. Because the inner contexts are affected by outer contexts and vice versa, the state of a person’s emotions comes from a combination of these.
If you want to be a good friend or a good parent to your kiddos, it’s important to understand what all of these sources of emotional pain have in common. This is it: A person’s sense of worth is devalued. Their very self feels invalidated by loss (experienced as rejection or abandonment -“you’re not good enough to keep what you want/love/value”), by someone else’s treatment, or by the words of their own inner critic. All of these give the message that they are not good/worthy/loved enough.
So, how do you help?
Now that you know the problem, it is easier to see how to help, right? This is what you do: You contribute to your friend (or child, or partner, or colleague, or employee, or client) feeling valued again. What humans need to heal is deep and genuine validation. Lucky for you, this is actually the easiest thing in the world to do!
Invalidation hurts us, and validation heals. You start with empathy. Watch my videos below on How to Be a Good Friend and How to Be a Good Parent so you can hear the dos and the don’ts. (You’ll want to know these because we can have the best intentions and not realize the potential negative impact of something we thought was being a good listener!
Spoiler alert: Even though there are some unique points, there is lots of overlap in these two videos!
How to be a Good Friend
How to be a Good Parent
Unintentional mistakes good-intentioned people make when listening
It is a sacred moment when you are let into the intimacy of something that is close to your friend or child’s heart. You can feel it too, can’t you?
It may make you a little nervous being a witness to such vulnerability. I know it makes me nervous. I take these nerves as a sign that it is something quite precious to be invited in like this. If you are like me, you want to respond in ways to meet this vulnerability with honor and love. Even when intending to do just that, I have seen people take the wrong course of action. These mistakes are not catastrophic, but as I will explain, they risk changing the trajectory of the conversation in ways that don’t maximize healing.
- Don’t say, “Thank you for telling me that.”
People say this in order to honor and acknowledge what is said. That is a wonderful intention! It seems like the nicest thing to say, and while I have never seen it blatantly hurt the person who is sharing, it carries some risks. The energy of it gives the air that the person is “done telling” even if I feel they are just getting started. When people start sharing what’s close to their heart, they are dipping their toe in the pool to check out the response before they continue. If you thank them, the focus is on you and the momentum stops.
Because people rarely feel deeply heard, they are initially warmed by the “thank you.” (This is a testimony on how easy it is to make a difference in someone’s life!) But that small satisfaction and energy of it being over have the potential to make them think they are done. Your friend feels “comfortable” with this because they don’t feel worthy of sharing anyway and the little bit of validation fro your “thank you for telling me” gave them feels like a huge deal. (This makes me sad.) However, I know the simple next step to exponentially heal them.) Watch the video!
Instead of thanking them, act out this honor by prompting them to continue until they get it all out. Facilitate this by expressing that you are with them, and fully present and interested in your body language. Ask questions. Linger on the story. If you feel called to say thank you, it’s okay to do it later in the conversation when the sharing part is definitely over!
Being heard and not judged is 90% of healing.
2. Don’t tell your own story so they know you understand them
You may feel like telling your story will help your friend or child feel understood and not alone. And, it does, but if you can, wait a while before launching into your story. Keep the center of the conversation on your friend or child, rather than switching to you. Ask more about their story. Ask about how they think and feel about each step.
You can say, “I would feel exactly like that.” See how their feelings and their story stay at the center when you say that? That has more impact in letting them know you get it. If you don’t know what to say, look at them with love, and focus on your confident belief in their ability to get through this. Let the word of their story flow into your heart where you can shine love on it.
3. Don’t give advice
We are a fix-it culture. When someone we love is hurting, we would do anything to fix it. Unfortunately, even good advice, when badly timed (too early), or when not requested has the opposite effects you intend. It centers you. It is invalidating rather than validating. Firstly, don’t give advice before you have heard the whole story because people often share what happened and then what they have already tried. I see people give advice before they get to that point, rendering the efforts and abilities invisible. Also, once they feel deeply validated, people can come around to their own solutions because those solutions are more accessible now.
Sometimes your friend or child is asking explicitly for advice. Then, you can put two heads together to brainstorm the next possible steps and the potential consequences of each to decide a way forward. (During this brainstorm session, it may be appropriate time to share your own experiences, because the possible responses are at the center of the conversation.)
4. Don’t say “I am here if you want to talk”
If someone lets you know they are struggling, they are talking to you right now. They are dipping their toe in. Your response is simple: “What is going on?” “What happened?’
If and only if one or both of you cannot talk at the moment, make a plan to connect when you can. And then follow up!
5. Don’t respect their privacy.
Ask people how they are. If you have an intuitive hunch someone is not okay, ASK! We are all walking around with a shabby self-esteem, feeling unworthy of care and love. We are dying for people to ask how we are. If they don’t want to share, don’t worry, they will tell you.
How to genuinely listen so someone feels deeply heard
Lean in. Ask questions. Make eye contact. Nod along. Put your hand on their arm or hold them if that is your relationship. Tell them you get it so they feel “normal.” Let them know you see all of them, their efforts and abilities and their goodness, and kindness if the face of what they are going through. Let them know you believe in them and will be here with them through it.