How to Help a Buddy in Crisis: Learning to Shut Up

Elk Whispering

Last fall, I reframed how I talk to elk during the Colorado archery season. More specifically, I began listening to the context of the vocalizations so I can understand what is truly happening. Not merely listening to the elk, but hearing what was being said.

Although I cannot claim to have arrowed a trophy bull this past season (the lingering Colorado Indian summer seemed to push the elk into the most inaccessible and dark timber imaginable), the few elk that I targeted for calls responded more favorably than in years past. In other words, listening to the elk vocalizations in context of what was happening in the woods helped me ‘speak’ their language.

Mulling over my elk whispering experiences, I could not help but see similarities in human communication. Listening is one thing. People can listen without truly understanding the other person. But hearing and understanding what they are saying is something altogether different.

We have all been there. You see their lips moving, catch a few words, nod your head occasionally so it looks like you are paying attention, but your mind is elsewhere. Regardless of your excuse for not listening, the fact is that you blew an opportunity to invest in someone.

Do this enough with the same person and they will simply stop wasting words on you for life’s trivial things, let alone matters of significance. Intentional hearing is the gateway into truly understanding someone.

Emotional Buckets

A very wise man once told me that life’s disappointments, heartbreaks, and unrelenting challenges tend to ‘fill up our emotional buckets.’ People end up carrying a bucket full of emotional ‘crap’ lest they find a healthy way to relieve themselves of the burden.

What they often need is a trusted friend who will allow them to dump their bucket on the table and say, ‘would you look at all this crap!’ It is in these moments that people need someone who will do more than listen but hear the depth of their emotions.

Friend, recognize these moments for what they are: sacred.

Not a BS session or bantering between guys. Not the woman in your life telling you about her bad day. These moments often materialize from nowhere when someone trusts you enough to expose their most troubling problems.

They do not want you to problem solve or worse yet, minimize their bucket of crap. Instead, they often need you to respond as Job’s friends when they first arrived after learning that his kids were dead, his livestock rustled, and his cabin destroyed:

When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.’ Job 2:12-13

Job’s three friends started well by meeting him precisely where he was emotionally. Unfortunately, they misunderstood the nature of Job’s circumstances and turned a sacred moment into something much worse. Not exactly the legacy most guys would prefer to leave behind.

When these treasured moments occur, do not be embarrassed. Don’t be impatient. In fact, do not be a ‘guy.’ Just shut up. Listen to the emotions fueling the other’s words regardless of whether you agree. And when you do speak, simply acknowledge that yes, that is quite a bucket O’ crap.

It’s OK to admit that you don’t understand exactly what they are experiencing or that you don’t have all the answers. The band Third Day wrote an entire song about these sacred emotional bucket moments in their hit, ‘Tunnel,’ and their opening lyrics speak specifically to notion that you may have no clue how to respond:

Well, I won't pretend to know what you're thinking,

And I can't begin to know what you're going through.

And I won't deny the pain that you're feeling,

But I'm gonna try and give a little hope to you.

Did you catch that? Admit the uniqueness of their situation. Affirm their pain. Admit that you are trying to wrap you mind around what they have told you, confusing as it may be. But above all else, give them hope.

Somehow, find a way to leave them better than they were at their worst while with you. Hope, not problem solving, is your end game with life’s emotional bucket moments.

Practical Application - The Art of Shutting Up

Contrary to what Hollywood portrays, the bread and butter of modern SWAT teams is not ballistic armor, tactics, or suppressed short-barreled rifles. It is the crisis negotiators.

Yes, SWAT guys are the ‘sexy’ part of the team, but the negotiators frequently prevent the need for tactical intervention from ever occurring. They do this by shutting up and listening. And how they do this offers key learning points on communicating with people when their emotions have hijacked reasoning.

In technical terms, negotiators help people in crisis make more reasonable decisions by figuratively walking them up a ‘Behavioral Change Stairway.’

The first stairway step is active listening (i.e. shut up). Use ‘minimal encouragers’ to keep them talking, like nodding your head, asking open ended questions, or simple phrases like, ‘that makes sense’ or ‘I see’. In effect, you are showing genuine empathy for their circumstance.

This helps develop an effective rapport that keeps them talking and lowers their emotions so they can think more rationally. The final stair is reached when the negotiator (or you) can influence the person to productively change their behavior.

Negotiators are so effective at getting people in crisis to change their thinking (i.e. give them hope), because they do precisely the opposite of what most guys do in similar situations.

Face it, fellas. We are often like the nation of Israel, as described by the angel of the Lord when he commissioned the prophet Isaiah, when he proclaimed they are, “ever hearing, but never understanding; ever seeing, but never perceiving.” (Isaiah 6:9)

Although most men are good problem solvers, our fallen condition lends itself to misusing that ability. In other words, we misunderstand and do not truly perceive what someone is telling us, then try to fix their situation instead of shutting up and listening. We do what is natural and unintentionally exacerbate the problem.

Negotiators do what is un-natural to most guys. They do not start by problem solving. They do not argue or banter with someone in crisis. They shut up. They listen. They connect. And they do it exceedingly well.

We live in a world where people increasingly and unnecessarily bear untold emotional burdens.

Virtually every tragic news story has the same underlying theme - an irrational action and an overflowing emotional bucket. People in crisis long for validation and a trusted friend to give them hope. Instead of problem-solving, consider the apostle Paul’s advice in Galatians 6:2:

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Strong men come alongside those who are struggling and ease their burden so they can endure. Shut up. Do not be a problem solver. Be a burden bearer.

About Joe Bradley

Joe Bradley and his wife, Debbie, have been married for twenty-six years, have two grown children, and are now living life somewhere beyond the ‘stress bubble’ years and those of retirement. A Colorado native, he is an avid outdoorsman, finding himself closest to God when the only roof overhead is an aspen canopy or the milky way. A police officer for nearly thirty years, Joe hopes to spend whatever time remains empty nesting with his beloved wife, hunting with close friends, fly fishing, and pouring into the life and faith of others.