Updated: Sep 17, 2020
None of us like feeling that we are a project needing to be “fixed.” This is no different for our friends that need some of the social services offered in our community. We all like to be listened to and feel heard. We all want value and worth as individuals. We don’t want to be a number or identified as a cultural abnormality. We want to feel normal, even when we need help. This is something we need to remember when we volunteer.
If we serve as a friend, we don’t need to be or have the solution to any problem. We just get to be present. If all we do is interject with our thoughts, then we will not be helpful. If we are storing what we want to say without being impacted by the other person, this is not good listening. Unfortunately, persons who try to “fix” are a common form of volunteer. Many volunteers have answers for all the problems those whom they serve may experience. Just because your life is different doesn’t mean you have answers. We need humility. Just because we read a book or have compassion, doesn’t mean that we should share what we know.
We need to learn to be good listeners. A good listener is a learner. A good friend is not an expert or a fixer, they are just there to be with and walk through any situation with empathy. One of the luxuries of our freedom is that we can have opinions. It is nice to have different thoughts and at times it can be good to share these thoughts. But what happens when your opinions are not welcomed or asked for? What if they are not received well? It is important to learn the “when and how” of opinion sharing. If we don’t know, we should keep our mouths shut. I am learning that as valuable as my opinions are to me, they are not that important when they are not asked for.
If we don’t listen before we give advice, it will be really hard to speak into any situation with wisdom and care. We all need relational equity to speak in a meaningful way. Humility doesn’t assume we have this equity until we are invited into it. We need to be patient and let it come. You will know it is there when others start asking you deeper questions. Solutions are not always welcome, or helpful for that matter. If solutions come without listening, it will be really hard to be as helpful as we want to be.
Good friends do offer advice and give their opinions, but they are careful to know when to employ these things. Listening and asking good questions is a great thing to do. If we can spark curiosities and help someone have an “aha!” moment. That is great and we can be really helpful. But, remember friendships are being built over time and there is no hierarchy in healthy friendships. When we volunteer, we need to allow timeto build the relationship. Do not offer advice too quickly.
When we listen, do we listen to fix or listen to learn? This is an important question to ask ourselves as we get ready to serve as friends. Listening could be one of the best services that we can offer. To have someone to talk to without judgement is a freeing and healing experience. If you’ve never felt heard and suddenly you are being listened to, it can go a long way to building someone up. We need to be learners and willing to set aside ourselves and our opinions and see what our new friends have to offer. We will find that there is a depth of life that we’ve never experienced.
Good questions are open-ended. They can draw out a person’s heart and meaning. An example would be asking about someone’s day. A closed question is, “Did you have a good day?” This is a yes or no question that ends with a simple answer. “What did you do today?” is open-ended and allows the conversation to flow beyond its simple intent. It also allows for a wide possibility of follow up questions that can get the person talking. Being able to verbalize one’s feelings can be a beautiful thing.
A note about asking questions of survivors of sex trafficking questions: Please be very careful about asking questions about their experiences in the life. This line of questioning is none of your business unless they decide to share these things with you. If you are curious, that is natural, however you may want to read biographies of survivors who were already willing to share their stories. Friends don’t see people in light of what they’ve done or what’s happened to them. They get to accept what their new friend will share and leave it there. Often asking about one’s past keeps them in the past. They need to process this, but with experts who can be help them deal with and navigate the trauma in their past.
We don’t have to be experts. We need to remember our role as volunteers and often time that is as a friend. We can listen and serve in this wonderful way.