For the past 20 years I have participated in and lead a wide range of various healing groups—women’s groups, mixed groups, 12 step groups, post-abortion groups, abuse survivor groups, and everything in between. They each have had a slightly different ethos or culture or format or material, but they hold one thing in common: safety.
Safety doesn’t mean comfortable. In fact, incredibly uncomfortable is a better descriptor of my experiences in these groups. It hurts to heal. It is awkward to be honest and vulnerable. It is startling to hear real and raw stories week after week. It’s tough to be in the room with a lot of pain.
Safety is about something far bigger than comfort; it is about creating an environment that allows people to share without worrying if someone is going to fix us, correct us, judge us, or scripturize us. I have been in so many Bible studies and church groups over the years where there were not good guidelines for sharing. There’s nothing worse than actually opening up and sharing an honest and real story in our lives and being met with either blank stares or a barrage of responses: “Oh, that happens to me, too” or “Have you tried _________?” or “Have you read _______?” or “Can we pray for you right now?” or “Just remember, Jesus loves you…”
To me, there’s almost nothing worse in a group.
Here’s why: everyone’s responses become about their own anxiety about the pain. The responses, while well-meaning, are about somehow feeling a need to make things better, to ease the tension, to put some kind of bandaid on the wound as quickly as possible.
Trust me, I feel it, too. When someone shares a hard story, I want to swoop in and make it all better in that moment.
But I keep learning an important and hard skill that is practiced in most every 12 step group in the world—the art of listening.
In the safest recovery groups I am involved with, we have a rule in place called “no cross-talk.” This means that when people share, we say, “Thanks for sharing” and move on to the next person.
We don’t jump in and respond. We don’t try to solve their problem or hand them a tissue. We don’t start trying to find a way to make them feel better.
We soak in the beauty and power of their words.
And we honor their courage with “Thank you for sharing.”
Let me tell you—it’s so hard to do!
I am a flaming codependent at heart and love, love, love to fix problems, make pain go away, and do whatever I can to provide relief when someone is hurting. I have a yes-I-know-better-but-I-still-think-it belief that if I say the right thing in the right moment, everything will be all better for people.
But I keep learning that usually the best thing I can do is listen.
To hold the space where people can freely share their hearts, their story, their pain, their good, their bad, their dark, their light, their real, their beautiful, their ugly.
To give my attention to their words, not what I think I’m supposed to say afterward.
To hold myself back from interjecting my two cents, my words-of-wisdom, my ___________.
And I also keep learning how healing it is for me when my friends do the same for me. When I blabber on and on about what I am struggling with and they hold that space for me with big ears and dear hearts and closed mouths. When they honor the truth of my words with a simple and kind “Thanks, Kathy, for sharing” when I am done. When they don’t minimize my story by trying to make it about them somehow.
“Thank you for sharing” is a tricky but intentional skill that is central to a life of downward mobility. In the trenches of real life, we will hear so many hard stories. Stories that will compel us to want to find a way to make better. Stories that will break our hearts. Stories that will test our faith. Stories that will make us cry. Stories that will fuel our hope.
Stories that deserve to be listened to and honored properly instead of hijacked with our own little twist or advice or solutions or input.
“Thank you for sharing” bugs me in so many ways, but it also teaches me exactly what I need to learn.