By Tamia Burkett
Everyone is constantly seeking ways to support their loved ones during their time of need. Whether it be a friend with depression, a partner that is suicidal or a sibling that has been locked in their room for weeks. At times this can be frustrating. Maybe the advice you gave them, they didn’t take? Or maybe they did not do what you thought was right or best for them. And in this frustration, you may step away and stop supporting or listening, because you can’t seem to fix it or they seem reluctant to listen to your advice. It is not about giving advice though, nor is it about fixing the “problem” for anyone. In fact, pulling away can be very isolating and can make things worse for the person. Sometimes the best way to help, the only way to help, is to create space for the person to speak their truth.
I began interning with REACH a few months ago, with a lot of nervous anticipation of what it would look like. I felt underqualified before the trainings started and could not fathom how I would be of help to survivors, or to support others that entrusted me with their story. Through training, the overall theme prevailed of supporting and empowering survivors, by giving space for them to use their voice. By doing this, you build a deeper sense of trust with the person that is sharing and you also learn more about the person and their strengths. You develop a deeper understanding to the complexities of the person and are allowed the privilege of hearing the innermost truths of someone’s life.
I have seen the power of creating space first hand and had people, after sharing their truths, thank me for just allowing them to talk and asking the right questions, the hard questions, the ones that everyone likes to shy away from but which need to be asked and listening to the response that no one else wants to hear. Sometimes it’s hard for those who need help, to ask for it. Sometimes it’s hard to reach out and utilize resources provided. Sometimes it’s hard for someone to admit what they are going through, to identify it, to label it. This “avoidance” could be a form of self-preservation, a way of moving forward, or be done for many other reasons. And creating space for them to just let it out to another person with no judgements, and showing interest in what they are saying and being present.
Creating space is about allowing people to freely speak their truth. This is not the time for you to take up the space. It’s not the time for you to interject with plans to seek justice or “offer suggestions” on how to make their life better. It is not about telling someone what to do to rectify their situation. It is about being engaged during these conversations, breaking the silence and being present as someone is sharing part of themselves with you. You may not think you’re helping in any beneficial way, or you may be wondering, “could this really be the best thing to do for support?” From my experiences, the answer is yes.
Reflect and work on becoming a better listener and try creating space for other people in the next few conversations you have. So the next time someone comes to you, wanting to share a part of themselves, or the next time you approach and try to help a loved one, just try to listen. Allow them to speak freely, and ask intentional questions throughout the conversation. Not every situation or survivor may be treated the same, but it can be triggering or challenging for survivors to talk about what they lived through. When they are ready, as a trusted supporter, it is important for you to be present with open ears, free of unsolicited opinions unless the survivor may ask for it. And remember, as a supporter, this is a privilege and something to be treated with respect. Trust me, you’ll see how much more people open up when you’re actively listening, and how much of an impact the conversation can have on the survivor, and yourself. Because being engaged and listening allows survivors to make the space that they deserve to create.
Tamia interns with REACH in our new role as a Direct Service Office intern. You can read more about her role and how the new office has made it possible here.