This letter is, I feel, less organized than I would like, with an uncomfortable lack of explanation for each idea and a strange blending of formal and informal address. I unfortunately do not have the time, motivation, or clarity of thought to enhance and refine it, so I apologize for any confusing leaps or assertions. It may be best to consider this a collection of tips or aphorisms, falling far short of being an argument or essay. Regardless, I believe many people might benefit from my words, as disorganized and imprecise as they are.
I struggle to think as clearly or speak as easily through my voice as I do through text. I enjoy the luxury of planning my words when communicating through writing, which relieves both the stress of immediate communication and the obfuscation of thought that comes with it. For this reason I find myself able to share my thoughts and feelings through online text mediums such as Discord. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I share more personal thoughts with people online than I do with my closest local friends.
I do not know which, and to what extent, others find text an easier form of communication, however I suspect that many are quite open through it, whether to groups of people or in private messages. Particularly in online communities that support emotional expression and comfort, it is likely that one will encounter another that is willing to share their emotions and troubles with others in the community. This openness may be easier online, but it is not necessarily easy. The speaker might need to develop a certain level of trust with another, or believe that the task of opening up is beneficial to them. Opening up to a friend or trusted acquaintance when one is struggling is almost always healthy, provided the friend understands and respects that one is trusting them with something important.
This is where listening becomes an active exercise, and is arguably a skill that can be improved through practice and discipline. For those that want to aid others by offering to be a person they can talk to, knowing how to listen is important. Such a desire is normally accompanied by the wish to offer help beyond listening, such as through comfort, advice or direction. Listening is comparably easy relative to the other forms of help, but each should not be forced under improper conditions.
Listening is a form of helping on its own. The speaker or sharer benefits from releasing their words at the listener, even if the listener offers no words in return. Outward expression of internal feelings relieves certain stresses and can crystalize the words into something easier for the sharer to understand or dissect. One should not feel like they have done nothing to help when only able to listen. One has done something to help, though it may not be as helpful as they would like.
Listening, perhaps unintuitively, generally involves the listener speaking. It is important to be careful when speaking while listening, as one’s words might prematurely end the listening and move on to other forms of support, or may even end the conversation entirely. Speaking while listening should be done with the intent of continuing the outflow of words from the sharer, ensuring what needs to be released is released. To achieve this, one might seek clarification or softly guide the discussion toward what needs to be spoken. Seeking clarification should not be done greedily; one must avoid pushing for a clarification to support an assumption. Ask for information so the listener can understand, not to indirectly push one’s own thoughts into the sharer. Similarly, when trying to guide the conversation, one should not be steering toward a particular idea. Instead, lead away from dead-ends and toward broader unexplored paths. Let the sharer determine when they have said what they need to say.
Comforting and Advising:
Before, during, and after listening, I often desire to comfort the sharer, but I do not always know how to do so. Each person and situation is unique in what is comforting to hear. Listening first can give the listener insight into what would be comforting or harmful to say. This might help one figure out what to say, and it might exclude possibilities and leave one speechless. In the latter case, do not force oneself to say things one doesn’t mean or doesn’t believe in. I have met people that prefer silence over comments like “I don’t know what to say” or “I wish I could help.” Their reasoning is that such lines indicate a lack of interest, determination, or are somehow useless. I disagree, as I believe that these are genuine expressions of the desire to help and the inability to do so. Discouraging these admissions means discouraging future sharing with the listener or encouraging the listener to try to comfort through words that they don’t really mean or hastily constructed.
In cases where the sharer would benefit from a resource or desires an event, refrain from promising them that thing when you are not certain you can provide it. In general, one should avoid making promises one might not keep. This is particularly true when trying to comfort a friend. The temporary relief of an unstable or empty promise is smaller than the eventual disappointment and distrust when the promise is broken. Similarly, do not obfuscate the promise within a conditional without clearly conveying that the conditional is not a guarantee. “If I can do this, then I will do that” can easily be interpreted by the friend to mean “I will do that.” This point can be summarized by the saying “Don’t get their hopes up.”
When the sharer is distressed about a fault of their own, or the listener determines that the sharer is at fault, it can be tempting to excuse their behavior or lie to them to relieve their guilt. Try to avoid doing so. This is another example of a temporary boost with larger long term drawbacks. They should understand that they are wrong when they are wrong, otherwise they will make the same mistakes again. However, this does not mean one should focus on blame or encourage guilt, for they are harmful as well. If comforting or advising, focus on bringing the person’s attention to the reality of their situation, taking care to not be condescending or sound as though one is ignoring the person. What is the situation? What does it mean for the future? Consider how mistakes might be corrected, or at the very least learned from. If nothing can be learned, treat that as a lesson in itself, as it means there is no value in worrying about the cause of the issue. Work with the sharer; talk with them, not at them. If they just shared a lot of sensitive information, they should not be thrown into an instruction guide.
When Not To:
I have already mentioned some cases where attempts to comfort or advise should be avoided, though I would like to address some larger or more general cases. If one is feeling emotionally unstable, is under considerable emotional stress, or is prone to impatience and intolerance, then one should seriously consider what emotional burden they are prepared to take on. In the first and second cases, one risks building up the sharer upon an unstable foundation. When one reaches their own limit and breaks, they are at risk of taking the other person down with them. I have learned this firsthand and hope others will not make the same mistake. Even if one wants to help, it is irresponsible to do so in such a situation. In the case of being impatient or intolerant, one risks not only preying on the distress or openness of the sharer, but also convincing the sharer not to share with more responsible and helpful people. Do not encourage a person to open up to you beyond what you believe you can safely handle.
I believe that a general truth about friendship is “opportunities, not obligations.” Treating a part of friendship as an obligation threatens the friendship itself or causes unnecessary unhappiness. You are not obligated to support everyone emotionally. If someone is your friend, you should want to help them, treating those times as opportunities to help. For the friend, you are offering the opportunity to share, not the obligation to open up when they do not feel like they can. Be responsible, caring, and patient, both with others and with yourself.
I hope this letter is helpful in some form or another. Thank you for taking the time to read it.