“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.” -Henri Nouwen
Do we know how to listen and validate rather than advise and fix?
I am doing a short series of posts on a group I’ve been a part of for almost a decade now. You can read Part 1 here, which provides more background and the impetus for my beginning the group as well as some general information about how we have come to function.
In this post, I want to tackle the idea of being with each other in the trenches of life, which is something we are learning how to do, week by week, text by text, email by email, in My Group. We are learning how to honor each other’s stories and God’s holy work in each other’s lives. We’re learning that we don’t need to save, rescue, solve, clean up, take responsibility for, or generally get our grubby little fix-it hands on anyone else’s life. And we’ve had to learn that the hard way at times, to be sure.
Throughout these posts, I’m talking about the context of group life, but really we’re talking about what it means to build trust and intimacy with another human. We’re talking about principles for building lasting and meaningful friendships, marriages, and other relationships where trust is vital. We’re talking about the bedrock foundation of feeling safe with another human.
One of the ways we erode this very safety we’re trying to create is by believing that we have found an answer to someone else’s problems and we need to coax them toward that solution.
Perhaps, we do know what might be helpful for someone else. Perhaps we’re right. The POINT IS most people need to arrive at their own conclusions and their own aha moments if real transformation and healing are going to take place in their lives. Our advice usually, even if it’s right on, won’t deliver in the end.
When we offer unsolicited advice, sometimes what we’re really saying is:
- “I can’t tolerate your mess and I need to clean it up NOW so that all this doesn’t feel so uncomfortable to me.” Sometimes we’ve gone through things in our own stories that do not allow us to be able to tolerate open-endedness, chaos, or mess. It makes us overly anxious. And we believe that the best possible course of action is to clean it all up. QUICK! We don’t allow for the fact that sometimes messes need to happen. Sometimes chaos teaches. Sometimes things can’t be fixed simply and swiftly.
- “I need to be the one who saves.” Some of us have built an identity around being the one with answers. We derive great satisfaction and find personal worth from being the one people turn to for solutions. This can create a dynamic that isn’t, in the end, conducive to mutuality in relationships. At some point, if we truly desire to be seen and heard and loved by peers, we will have to stop being the one who always knows.
- “You can’t figure this out on your own, so I’m going to need to help you.” I read somewhere that unsolicited advice is often perceived as criticism, and I think that’s true. Like it or not, when we start offering ideas, we might be communicating—even subtly—that we don’t think this person is able to handle their own life. Again, not rich soil for trust and intimacy.
I’ve seen over and over again that trying to fix things for someone else (even if we have the very best intentions) just ends up eroding what we’re trying to create: an environment of mutuality, trust, safety, vulnerability. Sometimes even unknowingly, we create a dynamic where people don’t feel free to show up with their whole selves because they worry that they’re whole selves will be scrutinized.
All of this might seem really minor to you. But I can’t emphasize it enough. In friendships, in marriage, in church . . . people are dying to be listened to and loved and accepted and believed in. They are NOT dying for someone to swoop in and tell them how they could be doing it all different and better.
If we’re going to create groups that are truly transformational, we need to understand some of the cultural shifts that need to take place in order to really experience true community.
The key to a meaningful group is that everyone around the table feels that they can show up—mess and all—and be loved and accepted right where they are. Some of you worry that this is a slippery slope. We’re ignoring sin. We’re letting people whine. We’re letting stuck people stay stuck. We’re celebrating poor decisions and bad behavior. I’ve found the exact opposite to be true.
When we look into someone’s eyes after they have just poured their heart out and we tell them, “I see you, I hear you, and I love you,” we give them the radical acceptance they need in order to seek change, healing, or growth in their lives. We give them a safe place, a soft place to land. We give them love. We don’t tell them overtly or subtly, “Hey snap out of it,” which (newsflash) so rarely helps.
You cannot imagine the power in words like:
“I’m sorry you’re going through that. It sounds so scary and hard.”
“I believe in you. I just want you to know, I believe in you.”
“You are brave.”
“I’m going to set my alarm and pray for you every morning at 8am because I believe God can heal.”
“What do you need from us?”
“We are with you.”
In the end, these simple, heartfelt words can mean more to someone than any solution, advice, fix-it strategy, or “help” we believe we need to provide.
I’m sharing this with you because it’s a lesson I learn over and over again. People often don’t need all my unsolicited “good ideas.” People most often need me to see them, listen (instead of jumping right to what I want to say), believe in them, bear their burdens with them, pray. People need me to sit in a room with them and breathe.
Most of all, people need me to show up with my own vulnerability, messes, scars, and questions. When I do that, I invite them into safety.
I’ll leave you with this . . . We often go around the table and offer affirmations at the end of My Group. One of the most powerful moments in the evening. Looking someone in the eye and telling them something you see in them that’s spectacular. Whoa.
Validation and affirmation can breathe real sustaining life into our groups and our relationships because they are a way we honor the God-work happening in each of our lives.
(Another little secret: this is a great thing to begin practicing on ourselves. How can I honor, validate, and acknowledge my own experiences, struggles, questions, and journey instead of telling myself to snap out of it, get over it, and suck it up. How can I offer to myself this very same idea . . . love, acceptance, compassion, space. I will be so much more comfortable offering it to others if I am first able to offer it to myself.)
I’d love to know how the validating presence of another human being has been healing for you in your life . . .
Thank you for reading and considering, dear friends. On the journey together,