Hear, Help or Hug: 3 Ways to Respond

Posted by on Jun 23, 2024 in Blog | 1 comment

joyful adult daughter greeting happy surprised senior mother in garden

It was a slightly unexpected and somewhat abrupt question, but afterwards its wisdom struck me. I was chatting to a friend about a difficult thing that had happened and he simply asked: “So what would you like from me? To hear, to help or to hug?

It set me thinking about my instinctive response when people talk to me about something difficult. While I try to remember the importance of deep listening, I’m wired to swing into help mode. Tell me a problem, and I will quickly suggest 5 or 6 options that you can try. If you don’t like any of them, I’m usually able to come up with a few more. When I sense a problem, I read it as an opportunity to provide a solution. “Have you considered…” are the first three words to get trotted out.

Over the years I have learnt that my instinctive response is usually not the best one. On my better days I remember to zip it, and to simply hear the other person out. I try to remember not to interrupt, to give a few minimal encouragers to talk (hmmm, yes, tell me a bit more), and to let the conversation go where ever it does. I try to make sure it doesn’t follow my agenda, but to create a tone that makes it safe for the other person to say what they really want to. And I am always stunned when at the end the other person says, “Thank you so much. You’ve no idea how helpful that was. That was exactly what I needed.”

I usually want to say, “But I neither said nor did anything, so I am not sure what was helpful about that,” but I don’t, because it has happened so often that I now realise that quietly listening is it’s own gift – a gift that is not often given, but one which can release and heal.

I’ve often pondered the paradox in the dance between Galatians 6:2 and Galatians 6:5. Verse 2 says “Carry each others burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ” while verse 5 counters with the reminder, “for each one should carry their own load.” Which is it? Are we supposed to rush in and “carry each others burdens”, or are we supposed to sit back and say “each one should carry their own load”? The answer: “It depends!” And it does. There are times when we are supposed to get our hands dirty and to jump in with practical help and assistance. Or we might need to raise our voice on behalf of another, serving as their advocate in an injustice that they face. Sometimes people need very practical down to earth help and we should be willing to help where we can.

More often, however, we “carry each others burdens” by listening well. When we remain silent while the other speaks, we create a space where they can hear their own voice without the judgment or editing of the listener. They can unpack what they think and feel. They can hear their own hurt, or anger, or disappointment or embarrassment. Though we are silent, our posture speaks volumes. What they are saying is worth listening to. We are not trivialising or dismissing it. And because we are listening, we are dramatically reducing the burden of carrying a story on your own. There is nothing lonelier than a story festering away inside, with no one with either the time or will to listen to it.

I go to a spiritual director and he has been a great help to me. Shortly before Christmas he told me that he was off on holiday after our session and said he had a model of a set of ears which he would hang up on his office door after I left. He said that his job was simply to listen carefully – and that hanging the pretend ears on his door was a reminder that he was about to go on holiday to do whatever spiritual directors do when they are on vacation. When he came back, he would take them off from the door and again offer the extraordinary gift of listening well.

So, that’s a quick look at the first two H’s of my friends question to me. “What do you want. For me to help or to hear?” But there was a third H offer – to hug.

Now of course their are all kinds of qualifiers that need to inserted here and I am assuredly not talking about the kind of hugging that is forced or unwanted, or inappropriate of in any way sleazy. Yup – let me be very clear about that. I’ve seen too many people operate from the “you need a hug” model when they actually mean I want a hug – and perhaps even something more. A very big “not on” to that.

But just because something can be badly abused does not mean it has no role. I need to get over my stoic British persona here – or at least the stereotypes of that persona. Sometimes people really do just need a hug – a physical reminder that they are not alone, and that in some small way another human is trying to help them carry their burden. Often those people are older – no longer in a relationship where human touch is a normal part of the back and forth of the day. It can be very isolating – especially if there have been other losses, like the loss of hearing or sight which leave people out on the fringes.

So why this blog?

Well I guess my friend’s question set me thinking. “So what would you like from me? To hear, to help, or to hug?” On that day it was “I need you to hear – please listen well. And please don’t insult me by trying to offer a solution. If it was that easy, I would have already sorted it… but I do need to process this by talking.” He listened really well, and I am still grateful.

In this week, I hope that someone is able to gift you with what you most deeply need – to be heard, or to be helped or to be hugged. And may you also be ears, or hands, or arms to others, for when we are, “We carry each others burdens and in this way… fulfil the law of Christ” even as we compassionately remember that each has their own load to carry…

Nice chatting…

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

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One Comment

  1. As my work is predomantly listening to people, my heart sings to hear that people are learning the value of hearing stories and being slow to try and “fix.” While we do have our own burdens to carry, sometimes it’s nice to have someone else pick up a bag or two, even just for a while, to lighten our load.

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