At HeartSupport, one of the most foundational conversations we have with people is inviting them to share their stories with us. Whether that’s at a concert we set up our tent, at our Support Wall on our site, or over email, story is our starting place. And being able to listen well to someone’s story can be the difference between someone feeling loved and empowered or judged and discouraged. It can be the difference between someone feeling understood and like someone’s in this with them or feeling like they’re completely alone as they feared. It can help someone find the courage to begin their recovery journey, or it could influence them to cycle back into their habits. Listening and listening well is one of the most powerful life-changing tools we have.
Every month, our community has hundreds of people write in to share their stories with HeartSupport, and hundreds more who respond to what others have written in. Our community is so active and compassionate, and that’s the way HeartSupport is supposed to be—this was built to be a community where we all work to strengthen one another. Over the years, the HS staff has worked hard to learn how to listen well, and we wanted to share what we’ve learned with you so you can help others feel understood and unstoppable when they choose to share with you too.
When someone is sharing their story with you, there are three basic things they want to feel from you: 1) they want to feel completely understood, 2) they want to feel like you’ve been where they have, and 3) they want to feel hope that they can make things better. As you’re listening, you want to help them feel those three things by communicating the following:
I understand what you FEEL (helping them feel understood)
When someone shares their story with you, the first and most important need they have is to feel like you understand them. And contrary to popular beliefs, sharing your own experience or offering advice often times does not communicate that understanding. Listening and helping someone feel understood requires you to reflect not only what they say, but also what they feel and what they need. In the process, it communicates that you are with them, that you see the world the way they see it, and it establishes a trust and a credibility that forms the foundation of your connection. Taking the time to make someone feel completely understood before you share your own experience or your advice will earn you the right to do so and help your stories be more relevant and your advice be more applicable to them. Because if you don’t truly understand them, your stories might not connect with the important parts of theirs, and your advice might be uninvited or ignored because of its irrelevance to their needs.
Because this is the most important phase of listening, it also has the greatest opportunity for growth. This is why I broke down the four layers of making someone feel understood in another blog and included a detailed description of how to master this skill. So if you haven’t read that one (or if you need a refresher), read it now because this skill is the foundation of the next two.
I have FELT the same way (helping them feel connected)
One of the greatest fears people experience when sharing their story is finding out that they’re alone in their struggles. They fear that when they open up and share the most vulnerable, authentic, and honest version of themselves that the person listening to them will judge them, criticize them, or see them in the very way they fear to be seen. We all have insecurities that we aren’t enough, that we’re disappointing, that we’re unlovable, or that we’re bad, and when we let down our walls and we choose to be authentic with others, we’re inviting someone to see who we truly are and decide for themselves based on what they see. They enter into the place where we have no protection or excuses to hide behind. We can’t say, “They don’t understand,” or, “They didn’t get the chance to really know me,” because we let them in to the core of who we are. When we share our truest self, we offer people the greatest opportunity to hurt us.
Simultaneously, when we share our truest self with others, we also give them the greatest opportunity to love us. One way we can do that is to connect with them by sharing our story. When we share feelings and experiences that are similar to theirs, we reciprocate their vulnerability with our own. We connect deeply because we show them, “You are not alone, and I’m in this with you.” When they thought they were standing by themselves, we show them that we’re shoulder to shoulder with them, journeying through similar life experiences together. It makes them feel safe, like we won’t judge them or criticize them because we’ve been through it too. And we tell them in a deep way, “Your insecurities are wrong; you are enough, you are lovable, and you are good.” In this sense, we see them for everything they are and everything they aren’t, and we accept them. In that moment when they realize we embrace them as they are, they will feel significantly loved.
Here’s what I FOUND (helping them feel hopeful)
Once you’ve helped them feel understood and you’ve connected to them with your story, you’ve earned the right to share the advice that helped you. If someone feels like you really get them, like you see the world they see it because you’ve listened deeply and you’ve also had similar experiences to them, they will feel open to hear what helped you through the tough times you faced. You’ve earned their trust by listening and accepting them for who they are, and they believe you are someone who could offer relevant advice to their situation. This is the best time for you to share from your personal experience what helped you.
Take yourself back to your own story. When you were in the throes of your struggles, what helped you out? What perspective changes did you find? What advice did someone give you? How did you hold onto hope? What were the most important steps you took to making your life better?
When you share your advice from the perspective of “this is what I found when I was struggling”, it allows someone to take from you what they need. Instead of phrasing your advice as, “You need to do these three things,” and you say, “These are the three things I did,” then they get to take ownership over deciding what they should do. And when they internalize your advice and decide for themselves that it’s something they want to do to make their life better, then you can feel confident that they’ll walk away from the conversation feeling hopeful about taking the next step to making things better.
By reflecting what they feel, sharing experiences when you felt the same way, and offering what you found, you’ll transform someone’s vulnerability into empowerment. You’ll help them feel understood, accepted, and loved on a deep level. They will feel worthy of making things in their life better; they’ll feel emboldened to face even their toughest struggles; and they’ll feel confident that they can make it through. By choosing to listen well, connect vulnerably, and empower them with hope, you dispel some of the most crippling fears and replace it with some of the most unstoppable courage. And there are few transformations more powerful than that.
So let’s be a community that listens and listens well. Because when people come to HeartSupport, they choose to trust us with their honest vulnerability, and we get to be the ones to respond. Let’s be the place they feel safe. Let’s seek first to understand. Let’s be the people they can trust. Let’s connect authentically and offer our vulnerability in return. Let’s help them find their footing and face their journey. Let’s let them know we are with them because truly, we’re stronger together.