Finding compassion for another person who is suffering or struggling is not difficult for me. I can feel their pain and acknowledge it. Where I ultimately bumble and fumble is in knowing how to encourage that person along. As a parent, I often find myself dissecting my kids’ behavior to understand what’s truly bothering them. I thought that all of the coping mechanisms Freud describes weren’t to be found until post-pubescent years, but I find, at least with my children, that their emotions and behaviors do not always logically correlate, especially when it comes to fear and anxiety.
We bought both of our children new bikes with training wheels for Christmas. My son was hesitant to learn and my daughter, the younger yet more independent one, seemed ready to learn. When we took them out on their maiden voyage, though, the outcome was the opposite of my expectations. My son picked it up quickly, overcoming his trepidation in short order. My daughter on the other hand, struggled, grew frustrated and scared, then quit. I simply could not comprehend what was going on. Miss Do-It-Myself was quitting! I could not seem to get the appropriate words out to either encourage her to keep trying or to learn the necessary skills to excel at this new activity. I felt like I had failed her.
We put her bike away for a few months until she felt excited to try again, which happened to be this past weekend. I was hoping that with some time and growth behind her, that it might come more easily to her. It did not. She simply did not understand the process of pedaling a bike and I simply could not explain how to do it. I wanted to quit, she wanted to quit…but we didn’t. I didn’t hand the task off to my husband, like I might ordinarily do. I kept with it right by her side. It would be a lesson for both of us. It took us about thirty minutes to travel maybe a quarter mile to the nearby park, with me hunched over the entire time, one hand on her bike. My back aching, I cheered her on with each exasperated “I can’t” she would whimper. I tried soft and gentle talk, cheerleading, clapping, jumping, smiling, consoling, instructing—“pedal forward, pedal up, pedal down, keep going, don’t stop, eyes up ahead, eyes forward, eyes on me…” Finding the right words and the right tone to get her to reach this milestone was far more difficult than I imagined it to be and it made me realize that my encouraging skills need a little work.
The next day, I spoke with a good friend about some difficulties she’s having in life. Again, I was presented with the opportunity to encourage another person. I instantly had thoughts to share and wanted to tell her exactly the way I saw her situation. We share similar struggles and experiences, so it all seemed clear to me. I found myself advising her, then stopped and realized that advice may not be what she wants to hear right now. At the root of her issue was not a lack of problem-solving skills, but fear and anxiety. She needed encouragement. I’m not sure if she needed consoling or cheerleading. I’m not sure if she needed advice or instruction. Thankfully she’s a good friend who wouldn’t shut me down for saying the wrong thing, so I’ll get another shot at it when we talk next time.
In the meantime, I’ll be over here analyzing the necessary components to effectively encouraging another person. I feel like I’ve been getting it wrong for a while. Here is my working list of encouragement:
Acknowledge and Empathize
When you see someone struggling, it’s important that they know that you see them accurately in their current state and can see their situation from their point of view. Acknowledging them is simply stating what you see right in front of you. I see that you are angry/sad/disappointed/scared, etc…If you start here, then 1) you know you are on the right track 2) You show them that you are coming alongside to support them.
Find the Truth
Sometimes the emotion they first project is not the real feeling. Ask questions that allow the person to get to what they really want to express. If you are dealing with a stubborn three-year old learning to ride a bike, then you might need to make some assumptions about what they might be feeling. They are still learning how to discern and name their emotions. (This often feels much harder on me than the child!)
Start with Love
When it comes time for you to say or do something, make sure it comes from a place of love for the other person and a desire for their well-being. Often times, I find this especially true as a parent-encourager, we can come from a place of fear or a desire to protect. You might be well-intended in your fear for the other person’s well-being, but it may not be positively received thus rendering your efforts ineffective. Make sure love comes out before your fear.
Don’t Hold Back
Say all the words you think they need to hear. Whatever comes out of your mouth will not be perfect; it might take a few tries before you say the thing that hits the right nerve. It also might take some time for those words of encouragement to do their job.
Don’t Take it Personally
You can’t control how the other person will receive your encouragement efforts. If it’s not what they need or want to hear, then prepare to be shut out of that discussion, or even out of their lives. Try not to take it personally when a person nestles in deep with their fear. It’s not about you anyways. This one is particularly difficult for me.
If I am in a position where I need to encourage another person, I am tasked with playing a role in how that individual surmounts a challenge, difficulty, or obstacle. I might also find myself in a position where I ought to encourage another person down a different path. It’s an important place to be as these moments are what shape and define relationships and community. I won’t always please everyone all of the time. I rarely say the right thing. And my facial expressions can give the wrong impression 90% of the time. However, I find that as long as I remind that person that I love them and I want to be by their side to support them in their good efforts, then whatever words or actions I implement will land on the side of encouragement. I just have to make sure those words make it out of my mouth.