Becoming a Safe Place: How to be a Friend Who Helps
It was after lunch. We were standing on the curb, about to walk to our cars, when my friend divulged some hard stuff, stuff that could easily be embarrassing outside of the little table we had just shared. I was about to leave when it occurred to me what she might be feeling in that moment.
I think I said something rather astounding, like, Hey. Thanks. For, y’know, sharing hard stuff. I know you could be tempted to feel kind of naked after all this. But thanks for trusting me to keep stuff like that safe. I’m going to be praying with you.
She looked me in the eye and said, “I hope I’m that place for you when you need it.”
Sometimes this can be important to say out loud. Most of us know how intimidating Christians can be, even for us Christians. As easily as “authentic” and “real” roll off the tongue, it’s another thing to actually engage on that level.
Yet honest relationships are in the spirit of what God extends to us. Romans 15:7 tells us to welcome and accept others in the way Christ has welcomed us. I hear the message throughout Scripture, Come exactly as you are. I’ll give you rest where you’re limping and exhausted. You will be enveloped—beckoned, even—by kindness you don’t have to deserve.
I’m reminded to confess my sins to others so I can be healed (James 5:16), and that we ought to bear with one another in love (Ephesians 4:2). Hear that tension? We’re both looking for safe places . . . and seeking to be one.
So how can we be the kind of people who are safe to come to?
Truth #1: Be a shame-lifter.
How we react, even in close circles, to those who differ from us, disagree with us, or even offend us gets assessed. I can hear someone thinking, If they’re convinced my margarita is a sin, I can imagine what they’d say about my same-sex attraction.
Clearly God’s opposed to diluting truth. Jesus didn’t mince words about the Pharisees, a.k.a. brood of vipers, to make other people feel safe. But he came down hard on these people because of their self-righteousness.
It’s okay to talk about what we disagree with, or what’s wrong. But in these conversations, can we detect any hint of superiority in our hearts—the sense that we’re somehow better than them?
Slipping into character defamation or blasting a group of people, making snap judgment calls on someone’s motives—they matter. We’re setting a climate on what kind of people are acceptable, and which aren’t.
Remember, shame makes people want to head for cover. Jesus shouldered all our shame, so now we’re free of it. In my mind, that’s what a person of refuge is: A shame-lifter.
Even Ephesians 4:29 conveys the same spirit: Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
Truth #2: Hold back on the platitudes.
Years ago, I was listening to a debriefing. Someone had died, and as the youth leader gave us advice on how to help, I specifically remember this line: Don’t tell them this was God’s will.
Perhaps it’s a sign of my emotional immaturity then, because I recall wondering why we shouldn’t say something that was true. But there’s a reason Ephesians 4:15 adds a critical clause at the end: speaking the truth in love.
Even God tells the truth in the context of a specific relationship. To Hagar, He is the God who sees. To Elijah, He is a whisper. To Moses, He is a bush aflame yet unconsumed.
Because truth without love lacks full truth (just as love without truth isn’t fully loving).
Sadly, misplaced Bible verses and trite Christian sayings tend to poke out like a hangnail when we’re processing grief. The offence lies in what they truly communicate: You are a problem to be solved. I see a puzzle piece that fits, I press it in. A blithe, helpful word at the wrong time flattens its potential, oversimplifying a person’s need.
The key in guidance is timing and mutual understanding—an appreciation of the complexity of the situation. God Himself asks questions before He speaks: Where are you? (Gen 3:9); What are you doing here? (1 Kings 19:9); What do you want me to do for you? (Mark 10:36).
Truth #3: Absorb some of the weight.
Often, when we’re sharing our hearts, we are looking for someone to help shoulder a burden too leaden and misshapen for us to bear on our own.
Galatians 6:2 says: Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. How does the former satisfy the latter? I think it’s because burden-bearing is decidedly un-formulaic; it’s messy and self-sacrificial and involved.
Author and missionary Dave Furman relates that the word sympathy literally means “a shaking of the head” with someone. So often, a safe place is where someone will shake their heads about what has happened to us. This is not right. It is not how God intended this world to be.
Sometimes, a hurting friend asks “Why?” But what she really means is, This doesn’t make sense. I’m lashing out. If we answer the surface questions without understanding their source, we get the answer wrong. Is she ready for the answers we’re so eager to give?
Jesus knew every truth while on His knees in the dirt of Gethsemane. He knew that God would resurrect Him. Even so, He needed to grieve, to commune with God in his abject pain.
More than leaping to a resurrection, a safe person stops and absorbs some of the weight.
Sometimes, a person of refuge embraces the humility of, I don’t know what to say. Ultimately, that may be the first thing I’m looking for in a safe place: humility, nothing inflated or deflated about what you can offer.
Truth #4: Extend thoughtful compassion and peace.
When someone’s soul-baring, our own stories should give a sense of “I think I understand one aspect of this”, but also still encourage them to “Tell me more about your experience.”
This means avoiding one-upmanship—saying something like, “Oh, that happened to me. But it was much worse/better”, or “I know how you feel, I went through that, too,” etc. Sometimes, in our hurry to ‘relate’, we talk over the person and fail to really listen.
Compassion also doesn’t mean adding to drama in a way that perpetuates anger or hurt. This is my weakness: occasionally feeling something so much with someone that I actually don’t help restore. When Jesus, for example, encounters the woman at the well (John 4:1-26), He doesn’t entertain her blaming of others. He helps her move toward healing and change.
Once, before I met with a friend whose marriage was on the rocks, my husband wisely told me, “Remember to talk to her in a way that helps her to go home and still be married.” He explained that my sympathy could further divide her from her husband—or, alternatively, help her return to her problems with renewed strength, vision, and courage.
Truth #5: Listen, and help them find the answers for themselves.
Listen by observing. 70 per cent of conversation is nonverbal. What are their tone and body voicing? When do they clam up? When do they look down, or collect tears in their eyes, or lean forward in anger? (Also, consider how your own body language and facial expression can show openness and acceptance.)
Then, gently ask questions that might allow someone the opportunity to talk (or even to choose not to). Often, people are waiting, wanting someone to simply ask, even questions that aren’t like those in their heads.
Collect a list of poignant questions that gently, respectfully help friends isolate the real issues with which their hearts are colliding:
- What was that like?
- What are you afraid will happen?
- What do you want most to protect, or avoid?
- I’m hearing that ___ is really important to you. Do you think it’s become too important?
- What do you feel like doing?
- What do you think you need?
- What do you wish you could say?
- What do you wish that person would understand?
Part of listening is learning to repeat back. Reiterate what you think they’re saying: “Are you saying that . . .”, “So I hear you saying . . .”, “Am I getting you?”, “Is that what you’re trying to say?”
Ultimately, when friends lead me to my own answers, tacking on a few potent insights, it’s 100 per cent more effective than their own spiel.
I find the need to consistently grow in being a safe place for others: increasing my ability to be present. Learning to set aside my own agendas and listen better. Listen to the Holy Spirit. Demonstrate how God would receive and respond to a person’s story.
Being a safe place takes work. But it’s also worth it to love more like Jesus—and from there, rediscover all over again how He loves me.
This article originally appeared on the author’s blog as a series of three posts on Becoming a Safe Space (#1 Becoming a Friend Who Can Help, #2 On Giving Pat Answers the Boot, #3 3 Practical Tips to Becoming a Person of Refuge). This version has been adapted and edited by YMI.
Thanks Janel for this article. You have managed to bring so many good thoughts and ideas into one single read. It is not about being a safe place but being a safe person for the one we are talking to. I have found it so useful that I am going to print it out for future reference.
Thanks so much for these warm words! Grateful it was so encouraging.