Here’s a conversation you might one day be part of.
You: “How was your week?”
Friend: “Oh, awful.”
You: “Really? Why?”
Friend: “My daughter refuses to go to school, my son is throwing tantrums, the baby screams all night, my husband and I keep fighting and I have a serious case of hives.”
You: (splutter, gasp) “um…”
What can you do? What will you say? Here are some practical tips for giving help and advice.
Honour the person
Jumping in too quickly to solve problems sometimes shows that you doubt someone’s ability to take responsibility, or that you’re not really interested in the person. Successful help is not judged by your brilliant advice, but by the person’s growth through the problem.
Discern the problem
Listening is better than talking. And asking gentle, disinterested questions is better than jumping in with solutions. Try not to help until you are really sure what the root problem is.
Enable, not disable
You don’t get results by telling other people what to think. Validate feelings, ask questions and see if you can get them to find the answer themselves.
Truth goes with love
Some people just don’t know what to say or are embarrassed about offering help. But sharing godly wisdom glorifies God. We should speak the truth to others because God speaks it to us.
Love goes with truth
Who do you most readily take advice from? The people who earnestly love you and whom you trust to do you good. It’s a waste of breath giving advice or help to someone who doesn’t value the relationship between you.
You might get a better hearing if you replace “you should” with “perhaps you could try…” or “this is what I did.” No-one minds hearing about your personal experience if you don’t try to make it prescriptive for everyone.
Try referring to a resource, book, website or knowledgeable body. “Would you consider counselling with your husband? You could ring Tresillian for the baby. What does the Board of Education website say about truancy?”
It’s not about ending the pain.
Christian help is not always about finding the quickest way to end the other person’s pain. Rather it is about standing with people as they, with the Holy Spirit, grow through the pain to greater capacity, responsibility and joy.
Don’t get co-dependent
If you find yourself constantly worrying about the other person’s problems and obsessing about possible solutions, you may be taking on responsibilities which are not yours. There’s a difference between showing loving concern and co-dependently controlling and living other people’s lives for them. Sometimes it is a fine line to cross.
Do you follow your own advice?
There’s nothing worse than a person who knows exactly what to do for everyone else’s problems, but clearly can’t manage her own life effectively. Listen to yourself and work out if you’re showing yourself up.
Know when to stop
As with most things, in the case of advice, less is more. Once you see the glazed look in your friend’s eyes or her hands starting to twitch, shut your mouth. Saying the same thing five times doesn’t make it more effective. Don’t worry – she did hear you the first time!
Prayer and a hug are sometimes better.
It’s a matter of wisdom to know what’s appropriate. Just make sure you actually do pray, and follow it up later to find out what’s going on.
The bottom line
In these beautiful words from a friend: share God’s wisdom, but do it all the time knowing that you, too, need God’s mercy.
Cecily Paterson writes uplifting, warm hearted fiction for young teenage girls and blogs here.