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Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: One more way reflecting helps us

Lynne Baab • Tuesday October 17 2023

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: One more way reflecting helps us

Two weeks ago, I opened a post with a story about a friend who was telling me about the funeral she attended. I asked you to imagine that I was watching her body language. Because she was drooping a bit and had a sad expression on her face, I imagined that I said to her, “You look really sad.” That’s a form of reflecting or reflection, a listening skill where we make a brief statement about what we’re observing in the person’s body language, tone of voice, or words. I said that my words were an invitation for her to talk about how she was feeling. Of course, she might or might not take me up on that invitation.

Now imagine that she replies, “I’m really not that sad.”

I can reply in a variety of ways. I confess that I would probably be feeling so proud of myself for observing her body language and facial expression that I would be tempted to say, “But you look so sad.” I might also wonder if she’s in some form of denial, and these words might jump out of my mouth: “Are you sure?”

I wrote two weeks ago that reflecting or reflection has two purposes. First, we indicate to the person speaking that we’re listening, and second, we direct conversations in a certain direction. I realized after that post went onto my website that reflecting actually has a third purpose. It helps us discern whether or not we are accurately perceiving what the other person is saying or feeling. In this instance, my friend’s body language might mirror the sadness of others who attended the funeral. Her body language might express sadness she felt earlier but is no longer feeling.

I want to re-emphasize that reflecting involves making a statement, not asking a question. “You look sad” is reflecting. “Are you sad?” is not. “The music at the funeral was moving” is reflecting, a statement I might use after my friend talks about the whole funeral service. “Did you enjoy the music?” is not reflecting.

When we reflect to someone, whether we’re commenting on their body language or trying to summarize something they said, we need the patience and receptivity that God can give us to remain open to hearing more. Instead of interrogating my friend about whether she really doesn’t feel sad, I can show kindness by replying briefly in a way that indicates I’m open to hearing more, perhaps in one of these ways (and only one!):

  • “Interesting.”
  • “Tell me more.”
  • “I wonder what emotions you are feeling.”
  • “Did you grieve a lot before he died?”
  • “What a mix of emotions grief is.”

Notice that none of these statements or questions involves reflecting. Good listeners use a mix of listening skills such as minimal encouragers like “interesting,” statements that invite more information like, “Tell me more,” and questions like, “Did you grieve a lot before he died?”

Notice also the temptation to say a lot. I can imagine saying several of those bulleted responses at the same time, rather than just one. It is so easy to keep talking ourselves when we think we are trying to draw out another person.

Of course, my friend might be really sad but unaware of her sadness. Occasionally, the most loving thing to do is push by saying something like, “Well, I see a lot of sadness in your body language. I hope you’ll give yourself the freedom to feel sad.” I hope I wouldn't be insistent in that way without pausing for a few breaths to ask God for guidance about whether to say that.

Hopefully, in our conversations with friends, we experience a give and take where sometimes we’re talking about what’s important to us, and other times they have the floor. In those moments when they’re talking, we can pray for God’s perception and insight about how best to reflect back what we’re hearing, and we can pray that we would be open to being corrected about what we think we understand about what’s important to them.

I wrote two weeks ago about praying about our listening skills when we’re not in the middle of a conversation. With respect to the aspect of reflecting that I’ve been discussing here, we can pray that God would help us be open to learning what our conversation partners think is important.

Open my heart, loving God, to the words and emotions of those I care about. Help me use the listening skill of reflecting to gain an understanding of what really matters to the people I talk with.

(Illustration by Dave Baab: Pier 62, Seattle waterfront, in early 2023 in the middle of redevelopment. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

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