What if we weren’t allowed to use more than 140 words a day? If we entered this game, among the useless words we would give up there would probably be words that convey encouragement too. The sad irony is that we use too few words of encouragement anyway, although the emotional and relational benefits are too important to neglect.
It was a beautiful summer day. One in which you notice nothing of the green rustle of the grass or the clear splinters of the sky, because you are absorbed in your own thoughts, happy but not quite so. We stopped for a few moments on the side of the street and, seeing her coming, we lowered the car window, to exchange a few words. We rarely see each other, even though we live close by, but every time we connect so easily, as if we had just seen each other.
We exchanged a few words in a hurry. I told her I was planning to start a new project, something different from anything I had done before. Maybe I didn’t look like someone confident they would succeed. In any case, after looking at me for a second, she assured me that I could succeed in whatever I set out to do. She said that with the same certainty one would say the Earth is round.
I never thought for a second that I would succeed in anything I tried, but the fact that she was confident that this was the case changed the color of me day. The birds were singing again, the grass swayed in its graceful green robe and the sky sparkled beautifuly as I started the car’s engine, and my friend kept walking along the street, not knowing what magic she had managed to weave out of simple words.
Whether we recognize it or not, words matter, especially when they come from people we trust. Words can soothe, hurt, build, crumble, transform. Although we do not receive the gift of speech accompanied by a user manual, we need to learn the art of handling words so that good would pulse in them.
Listening versus hearing
“How do you identify someone who needs encouragement? That person has to breathe,” said businessman Truett Cathy, stressing that the need to feel understood and appreciated is universal.
The first condition to be able to provide positive feedback is to learn to listen to the message sent by the interlocutor.
It may be harder to become an active listener than an eloquent speaker, family counselor Nancy van Pelt says.
Active listening “means listening and giving answers in a way that improves mutual understanding”. It seems simple, but in reality we are not used to listening carefully, without being distracted by our own thoughts; it can be harder to become an active listener than an eloquent speaker, according to family educator Nancy van Pelt, who discusses several misconceptions about communication that have the potential to block listening.
Interruption is one of the most unpleasant habits, but also the most common in the communication process. It is, in fact, an indication that the interlocutor does not use silence to listen to what is being said, but is rather interested in their own ideas, formulates their own answer, trying to place it at an opportune moment, although the other might not even have finished their thought. The message interruption conveys could not be more rude, showing a lack of consideration for the other’s ideas.
Avoiding eye contact, in turn, conveys disinterest, distrust and inattention to a person. In the case of close people (and especially in the case of life partners), avoiding the other’s gaze can be an easily recognizable mark of deterioration of the relationship.
Selective listening involves picking up certain passages from the conversation and rejecting the rest, because the message is perceived as boring, unpleasant, or because the listener is not interested in connecting with the other.
Insensitive listening is characteristic of those who cannot receive the feelings and emotions behind a message or elements of nonverbal communication. Nonverbal expression is very important – in ordinary communication, words represent only 7% of the message transmitted, while tone of voice and gestures represent 38%, and facial expressions – 55%.
A matter of transparency
Sometimes, someone’s support becomes a problem, because intuition alone cannot penetrate the masks we display. “Each of us struggles to hide behind a shield,” writes Dr. Paul Tournier, explaining that the forms it takes are different, from “mysterious silence” and “empty talk” to overconfidence.
We suffer, to a greater or lesser extent, from what psychologists call the “impostor syndrome” – the need to reveal less and hide more of who we are, convinced that otherwise we would not be accepted by those around us. Lack of authenticity can be played not only with strangers, but also with our friends or life partners, says writer John Ortberg, exemplifying his statements with illustrations from his pastoral work or family life.
A trustworthy friend “keeps the secret of confession as God Himself would,” said Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Although we hide our scars, fears or failures as if our lives depended on it, in reality our lives depend rather on the extent to which we reveal ourselves, writes Ortberg. We need someone who knows everything about us and who still loves us, says the author. And a trustworthy friend “keeps the secret of confession as God Himself would keep it,” as Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer said. There is an impulse to confession in us, so hiding our thoughts and feelings can be unhealthy, while revealing them has positive effects on our well-being, according to researcher James Pennebake.
Although we will not practice total self-disclosure without discernment, in front of everyone, we need to be transparent, authentic, with the willingness to let ourselves be known as we are, without worrying too much about how we will be judged by others, including because in this way we can be supported and encouraged in the real struggles we have with our imperfections.
Going beyond words
Sometimes grieving people say that they feel a vacuum around them, because many of the acquaintances start to avoid them, not knowing what to say to them. On the other hand, almost inevitably we have witnessed (if not protagonists) situations in which the encouragement offered in difficult times sounded very empty.
It is wrong to believe that encouragement consists of a specific set of words and phrases, remark Larry Crabb and Dan Allenderr in a book that radiographs encouragement from a Christian angle. What gives strength to the words of the one who wants to encourage another is related, instead, to love and fear, the authors claim. Thus, the words that encourage are inspired by love (or concern for the good of the other) and aim to calm the fears of the interlocutor.
Although you don’t need a brilliant speech to encourage someone, you always need love; whenever we talk to someone we care about, our interest in his or her well-being penetrates through words and more easily penetrates any walls we build around him or her. Beyond what the words convey, we each have “our radar” that shows us whether the other’s interest is sincere or just mimicked.
More than a technique, encouragement is the interweaving of sensitivity toward others with the confidence that God is in control.
The same question (for example, “How are you?”) may arise out of habit (so the interlocutor answers predictably: “Okay, thank you!”) or may radiate warmth, resonating with the other’s need and giving him the opportunity to open up.
Most of the time, we hold back our encouragement not (just) because we don’t know in what words to wrap it, but because we are afraid (maybe of being rejected, maybe of making a fool out of ourselves). It’s easier to keep your distance, but Christianity “means involvement from start to finish,” Crabb and Allenderr note. That is why, they say, the Christian can take the risk of losing something (for example, a few moments of relational comfort), knowing that he has a vertical relationship strong enough to support him, a safety net that allows him to get involved in the problems of others.
Being more than a technique, encouragement is the interweaving of sensitivity toward others with the confidence that God is in control. Encouragement works when it inspires confidence that there are solutions, no matter the problem, and that this life has a higher meaning.
Principles of encouragement
Our fears about conversations that could lead to awkward disclosures also stem from the fact that we feel compelled to find a solution to the problems the other person shares with us. This is proof that we misunderstand the nature of encouragement, say Crabb and Allenderr, who outline a few encouragement principles in their counseling work.
First of all, encouraging means listening without rejecting. Since the person who reveals himself becomes very vulnerable through this choice, the listener must create the right framework for discussing the issues, without showing any rejection reaction.
After loosing Eden, people carry inside two essential fears: the fear of rejection and the fear of losing their value.
The second principle concerns understanding. Although we often feel the pressure to solve the problem of the one who confesses to us, in reality that person may not expect this from us, as we may not have the competence to do so. In the absence of any agreement, the advice is not very useful, and when given in a hurry it communicates a lack of respect and interest, the two counselors emphasize. Whether we can help that person or filling their need is beyond our competence, the effort to understand the problem facing our interlocutor is essential if we want to encourage them.
The better we understand, the more encouraging our words are – this is the third principle stated by the authors.
After loosing Eden, people carry inside two essential fears: the fear of rejection and the fear of losing their value; an awareness of this fact provides an opportunity for genuine encouragement, working through words and attitudes that reflect a deep understanding of fundamental human needs.
When waste is a one-way street
Jesus Himself needed encouragement and received it in the hours of darkness in the Garden of Gethsemane, in the form that His Father considered most appropriate. However, His disciples, who were asked to watch with Him in prayer before His capture and crucifixion, failed in fulfilling the only direct request to support Him.
“Why this waste?” This could probably remain the most embarrassing question in history.
They were overcome by sleep in the garden, they did not know what to say when they saw His turmoil, they fled in fear at the time of His capture, and Peter, who had loudly advocated his decision not to betray his Master even in the face of death, denied Him three times, even in His hearing. In His last hours, Jesus heard no words of encouragement, appreciation, or gratitude for His sacrifice (except from the thief, the only one who saw in the man dying beside him the Savior of the world).
During His life, on the occasion of receiving a valuable gift (the anointing poured on His head and feet at the feast in Simon’s house), the gesture annoys the disciples, snatching the question: “What is the point of this waste? ?”. This could probably remain the most shameful question in history that Heaven has ever asked, even though he was the only one entitled to do so.
Jesus’ life was a “waste” of grace, of forgiveness. Of love for those who are difficult to love and of encouragement for those who are easy to give up on. The one about whom the prophet announced that He would “not break the bruised reed and quench the still smoking flax” showed us that there is a way to waste our lives and words and that is the only one that actually manages to keep them forever.
Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.