When someone we care about hurts, it’s natural to feel the pain ourselves. That empathy is one of the most important parts of being a loving person. In our action-oriented Western culture, it’s hard to remember that understanding is frequently more important than solving someone’s problem.
This issue has been on my mind this morning because of something I found out late last night. Someone I care about greatly is going through a tremendous amount of pain, and I’m not in a position to do anything about it. What do you do when you can’t make someone’s pain stop and you can’t fix everything that’s wrong?
There’s a stereotype about men that says we listen to people simply because we’re thinking about how to take action — that we’re listening to someone’s hurts more as though we’re evaluating a practical problem and diagnosing a technical fix. With many men (and some women), that’s definitely true. I think author Stephen Covey was right when he wrote:
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people’s lives.”
It’s good when we can make someone’s pain go away. It’s good when we can solve someone’s problem so that the source of the pain is gone. But even when we can do those things, there’s something that matters even more. Every person has a deep hunger to be understood. When we hurt, we need someone else to understand our pain. Solutions aren’t enough. Understanding has to be there, or the solutions almost don’t matter, no matter how well-meaning they are.
When someone else hurts, it’s almost as though we carry that person’s heavy heart, too. In order to do that, there has to be real understanding of the heart and mind of the other person. We have to listen to understand, not just to take action.
So as I think this morning about someone I care about hurting, all I can offer is deep understanding. I have no solutions. I have no action plan. I have no brilliant advice. I just have understanding and love for a hurting heart and a confused mind.
It hurts to accept that this is the best I can do, but sometimes, going beyond that is simply an attempt to make our own pain go away. All I can do is really understand and ask, “What do you need?”