learn to listenThe things people are most afraid to say and usually the ones that most need to be heard.

I’m gay.

I love you.

I want to help you.

He’s been hitting me.

I can’t pay my rent.

Help me.

They’re the things that people often don’t have the strength to say aloud. Giving voice to something makes it feel a hundred times more real. The most difficult experiences people go through are the hardest to talk about. But they’re the ones that need to be discussed.

They’re the ones that need to be said – and fixed – immediately.

And, somehow, our culture has developed a habit of blaming people for their misfortunes.

What did you do?

Why would you let this happen?

How did you provoke them?

As if they deserved it.

So it’s no wonder that people are scared to admit they need help, that someone is hurting them, that they have a problem they can’t cope with alone. Others make them feel as if they are a burden for needing help.

Which is no way to treat any human being.

But as long as this attitude persists, people will remain afraid. They will continue to not contact the authorities or even confide in their closest friends. Services are set up to help people who are struggling, but often the people who need it most do not have the courage to reach out and ask.

And when that happens, the responsibility falls to you.

As a friend, you probably think that you know most of what goes in the lives of the people you care about. You might see them every day. You might go on weekend trips together. You might be close to their partner and their parents.

But you can’t know everything. And while it’s nice to think that they trust you enough to tell you when they need a little extra help, some people just can’t find it in themselves to do that. Whether it’s because their pride stops them from asking or because they’ve been warned not to, it’s up to you to work out when something is going wrong.

Learn to listen to what people don’t say as much as what they do say. Listen to the words they leave out. See where they don’t give details – or where they give too many details. Where the empty spaces in their sentences hang between you, think about what’s supposed to be there. Think about the pause that comes before “…I’m fine”.

Watch their body language – it says so much more than people imagine. Watch when they get uncomfortable. See if anything seems rehearsed.

Notice when something is different – especially if it’s a kind of different you don’t like. If something doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts. Stay suspicious until you can be certain everything really is fine.

If you’re wrong, at least they know you’re looking out for them.

If someone does trust you enough to share their secrets with you, feel special. Don’t abuse the responsibility they’ve given you. Treat what they’ve told you with respect. Remember that they are afraid of your reaction because they care about you and because your judgement means a lot of them.

Listen beyond the words people say to what they mean. Often, it’s easier to speak in euphemisms than in plain language. To suggest and to hope than to be blunt and to have to acknowledge reality.

And even then, they’re giving you more information than most.

Everyone needs help sometimes. Be the kind of person who knows when to offer it, even when people don’t have the strength to ask.

Kirstie Summers,

Daily Zen.