Very often we wait for the hurting person to seek help, and it’s easy to assume that “no news is good news.” It’s also tempting not to venture out to find hurting people because you already have enough to do. People are often embarrassed by their problems. That’s not always the case, because some people are in denial. But in many cases, they won’t voluntarily divulge their secret to you, even if you are a trusted adviser. In other words, the people who hurt the most are the least likely to come to you for help, whether you are a minister, counselor, financial planner or a concerned individual.
Just because they are not seeking you out for help does not mean everything is fine. If you want to see people who are hurting, then you have to look at them differently. I’ll be honest, there have been days when someone passed me in the building and said, “How are you,” and I wanted to say “Not well,” or “Do you really want to know?” But I usually gave them the answer they expected instead. “How are you doing” is too general a question to elicit a pointed response, and I don’t expect the person to be interested in my problems. Besides, they have problems of their own, right?
If you’re ready to see the world differently, here are a few tips:
1. Don’t ask how someone is doing unless you are genuinely interested and have time to talk. Find another way to acknowledge them. A smile, “hello” or “good morning” go a long way with many people because their phones, iPads and computers never interact with them, and phones, iPads and computers constantly distract other people. If you think I’m crazy, try doing this at Walmart. There will be some people who will give you sour looks. Greeting people is uncommon, especially in urban areas.
2. If you know someone is going through a transition or crisis, ask specific questions. You know an individual just relocated for a job change. Ask if they sold their former home or ask if the new job is working out. You know an individual is going through a health crisis. Ask if there has been any new progress or ask if the bills are covered. You know an individual who recently lost a job. Ask how the job search is going or how their finances are holding up. It doesn’t mean you have all the answers. Sometimes people just need someone who will listen and help them talk through a tough situation. Other times, you might realize that you know someone who can help and volunteer to help them find an answer to their question.
3. If you see a person showing signs of distress, suggest that their appearance indicates they are gloomy and invite a response. As a response comes, engage in active listening and resist the urge to condemn. This involves intentional observation and noticing subtle changes in a person’s facial expressions, demeanor or habits. Ministers, employers, administrators and other professionals who see the same people on a regular basis are in the best position to make these observations. One of the most helpful books I read on this point is Helping Those Who Don’t Want Help by Marshall Shelley, who wrote that many of those with problems “keep their condition a secret as long as they can, wanting help, perhaps, but not the inevitable condemnation. And frequently the rest of us passively aid the cover-up because we too prefer not to know... Writing cheerful graffiti on the rocks of the valley of deep shadows is no substitute for companionship with the person who must walk in the darkness.”
4. Although many people are embarrassed to come forward about their difficulties, the majority of people would not lie to you if you approached them directly with your concern, and they are far more likely to open up once they detect your genuine concern. As the father of a newly minted teenager, I’m always interested in continuing to engage with my children. One blog post suggested that instead of asking how their day was at school, ask what went well today and what went bad today. General questions are avoidable, but specific questions cause the other person to think deeply and create an opportunity for a specific response. It also creates an open line of communication that can help them process something or acknowledge fresh hope.
5. Don’t get caught up in the first response or think their problem goes away by one encounter. Shelley writes, “As anyone who has counseled knows, when people do ask for help, it is usually not in the area of their real need. They rarely mention their real source of pain without first sending up one or more trial balloons – the presenting problems. The way these ‘safe’ issues are handled determines whether they will reveal the underlying hurt... In order to help those who don’t want help, we must recognize that some of these people will ask for help, but they will ask for it through a tangential issue.” Think of your encounter with a person, especially a person who is revealing a difficulty, as building a relationship. They fear condemnation and risk embarrassment and vulnerability. Your task is to create an environment built on trust, so they will allow you into the inner sanctum of their deepest hurts.
In my next post, we’ll discuss how to deal with issues of embarrassment and vulnerability.
R. Joseph Ritter Jr. CFP®
Zacchaeus Financial Counseling Inc.
866-862-2220 | firstname.lastname@example.org | www.ZacchaeusFinancial.org