So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing.
1 Thessalonians 5:11
We’ve all been there: your friend is going through a breakup, your spouse lost his or her job, your child is feeling defeated… the list could go on forever. We have all been in a situation where someone we care about feels discouraged and turns to us for support. It’s easy to respond with thoughtless quips (“It will all work out in the end!”) or annoying – even hurtful – platitudes (“God has something better!”), but you know those don’t really help. Oftentimes such meaningless chatter can do more harm than good by reinforcing the listener’s feeling that nothing good can come of the situation because our only response is something cheesy.
So, how do we really encourage someone who needs to hear it? This doesn’t come naturally for everyone, but with a little practice and a lot more mindfulness, you can truly be there for your loved ones and encourage them to be their best.
**I will mostly refer to a “friend” in this post, simply for the sake of clarity. The same principles can be used for our spouses, loved ones, co-workers, children, even complete strangers, if you happen to be in that position. I feel it is important for parents, teachers, and those who work with kids to be especially mindful of these tips, as encouraging a child is one of the most important and significant tasks we will ever receive. Don’t think because a child is young that these things don’t matter; if anything they matter more.**
5 Ways to Be an Encourager
1. Listen. No, really listen. Listen to your friend’s words, but also listen to the emotion in her voice, her body language, and look her in the eyes. Don’t formulate your response while she is still talking. When you give another person your full attention, you can encourage her just by reinforcing her value. Her words, feelings, experience… all of that matters and is worthy of your attention. That speaks volumes, and you don’t even have to say anything!
2. Think before you speak. This is one of those obvious truths that will make a huge difference in every area of your life, but it’s honestly really difficult to practice. The good thing about being in a situation to encourage someone is that you will often be given the chance to listen to the other person’s problem before you are expected to say anything. When your friend is finished talking, take a moment to just be present with him. In that quiet moment, assess your gut reaction and ask yourself, will this really benefit my friend, or am I just trying to say something for the sake of saying something? If the latter is true, just stay in that quiet moment. If you need to say something, try to acknowledge the person’s emotions and validate his experience. A simple, “I’m sorry you’re going through this,” or “That was really brave of you to open up” doesn’t require you to say anything profound, but it makes the listener feel safe and valued.
3. Point to what you know is true. When a friend is going through a difficult time, it is easy to get caught up in the “what ifs.” In reality, though, speculation is not productive in terms of emotional healing. Take time to remind your friend of definite truths to fall back on. Reinforce unchanging values, such as the listener’s skills or gifts, or tell her things you admire about her. The unfavorable circumstances of the moment will not change that person’s identity or character.
Even when the problem is an existential struggle for identity, or if you don’t know the person very well, point to the unchanging truth of the Gospel. God is good, he loves us, and all things are under his authority. God created us in his image and sent his Son to redeem us. Jesus gave us the perfect example of how to live. His mercy is unending, and his grace is sufficient to cover all our shortcomings. Nothing can separate us from God’s love, not even our own sin and rebellion. The truth of Scripture never fails, and while it is important to connect personally with a friend you want to encourage, the Bible should inform everything we say and can stand in the gaps when we don’t know what to say.
4. Be positive. Help your friend see the good things in his life. It is great to look at the “silver lining” of a bad situation, but sometimes this can diminish your friend’s experience or make him feel guilty by suggesting he doesn’t have a right to feel upset. Acknowledge his feelings, but try to ask directed questions that will help him find the silver lining on his own. For example, when my daughter comes home from school upset about being teased, I ask, “Who wasn’t teasing you?” so she is comforted by her true friends. Also, I often ask, “Have you ever heard the kids tease someone else in your class? How do you think you could help, now that you have been through this too?” This recognizes that her pain is real and significant, but it allows her to think outside the doom-and-gloom of right now to see where the situation can help her grow.
A note on being positive: there is a big difference between being optimistic and giving someone false hope. Optimism helps an individual change perspective and see the potential good in an otherwise negative situation. False hope, on the other hand, presents scenarios that may or may not be realistic and gives the listener a “promise” to stand on. It might seem to help in the immediate, but eventually these false hopes could come crashing down, leaving your friend even more depressed than before. Sharing hope with a friend should be hope in the overall good of their life story and the goodness of the Savior despite our circumstances. That’s the difference between building your house on the sand or on the Rock. (See Matthew 7:24-27.)
5. Be authentic. Don’t pretend you have all the answers, because you and your listener both know you don’t. Be honest in saying you don’t know everything, but be genuine in caring for the person in the meantime. You don’t have to fix the situation (in fact, you really shouldn’t!), but you can love your friend right where she’s at. You may be tempted to tell stories of when you or someone you know went through similar circumstances, and things worked out great in the end. This can be helpful occasionally, but be aware that often stories are just a distraction. Remember that the situation at hand is about your friend, not you. Anecdotes can be useful tools, but only when used sparingly and when they ultimately point back to the person in front of you.
Bonus! PRAY. I don’t mean just saying, “I’ll pray for you,” or “you’ll be in my prayers.” I mean stop what you are doing right then and there and pray for your friend/child/loved one. You don’t have to say anything fancy or special or impressive. Go on and pray it up if that’s your strength, but if that’s not you, keep it simple: “God, you see my friend is hurting, and I know that hurts you too. Help her to find you in the midst of this struggle. Please bring peace and comfort. Amen.” See? That was easy. And you just proved yourself good on your word to pray. Now your friend knows she can count on you to really pray for her when you say you will. Again, it doesn’t have to be elaborate if you’re still growing in your faith, but be real and don’t be afraid. Your friend is being vulnerable in sharing with you, so you can be vulnerable by letting her hear you pray.
I hope these tips have helped you as you seek to encourage the people around you. The more you put these into practice, the more your loved ones will trust you and want to open up. That might make you nervous, but consider what an incredible opportunity that is to speak truth and love into their lives! We are all a work in progress; I ended up preaching to myself on some of these! What would you add to the list? Give your feedback in the comments!
Check out these other great posts on how to encourage our loved ones!
10 Things a Hurting Husband Needs from His Wife
Top Ten Things I Tell Myself
Scriptures for the Brokenhearted
Encouraging Words – Positive Parenting
5 Ways to Help Your Child Deal With Rejection