Tough situations. Day in and day out I have conversations with clients that are filled with heartbreak. Hundreds of individuals and families reach out to St. Vincent de Paul for a helping hand—someone to reach out and give them a hand up. They seek hope.
This year has become an incredible opportunity for me to learn how to respond. When someone pours their heart out to me, cries to me, tells me more than I would ever think someone would in our first interaction…how do I respond? The truth is that absolutely no two situations are the same. This makes it nearly impossible to have a manual, a set of guidelines, that could tell me step-by-step how to respond. To provide the hope clients yearn for requires actively listening to each client’s story and responding from the heart and with faith.
However, recently I have been reflecting upon one phrase that I find myself beginning my responses with: “I understand…” I have really been wrestling with these two simple words.
Saying “I understand” just does not ever suffice. The truth is, at this point in my life:
-there is no way I could understand what if feels like to sleep on the cold tile floor every night because not only do I not have a bed but I do not have a couch available to sleep on either.
-I cannot understand what it feels like to have a growling belly that I cannot calm because when I go to the cupboards there is no food.
-I do not understand what it feels like to not only have lost everything in an apartment fire, but then be expected to pay rent and the security deposit for a new place and not be able to.
-I am unable to understand what it is like to live penny by penny each month, hoping your child does not get sick or that an emergency doesn’t come up, because there is no way to pay for it.
-I cannot understand what it is like to ask someone to help buy gifts for my kids for Christmas because otherwise there will be nothing for them to open Christmas morning.
There have been countless times where a client tells me what is going on in his or her life and the first thing to pop out of my mouth is “I understand.” Fact of the matter is that I do not, at least not in the way that would allow that response to provide a sense of empathy or solidarity. Why then are those the first words that pop out of my mouth?
As I reflect over this, I feel as if I am somewhat programmed to that response because I feel like I have to respond. I want to provide a sense that I understand what the client is saying, but I could never understand how they are feeling. Many of the tough challenges my clients face, I have not gone through. The words “I understand” just do not suffice, which caused me to reevaluate my word choice.
First things first, I am learning that when I feel like I have to come up with something to say, sometimes I need to stop, not force it, and simply listen and continue to give my full attention to the client. I am finding that words aren’t always necessary. Little do I realize I respond with the time I take to listen and be present to each individual and his or her story. Listening is a powerful response.
I do recognize that I need to give a verbal response at times. Therefore, I’ve been reflecting and discussing with coworkers how I can respond differently. I desire to be a genuine presence to the clients. My intentions are to comfort, understand, and empower our clients.
I’m trying to find ways to communicate this without expressing words that I can’t mean. Some examples are “I could see how that would be difficult…” or “I’m sorry to hear that is happening, but I admire your strength because…” In reality, my responses can’t be planned because they are so situational. What I do know is that I want to strive to more actively listen, allow responses to come more naturally, and seek to express comfort, empathy, solidarity, and empowerment without expressing things that I cannot mean.
It’s a challenge each and every day, but it is one that is worth it. Through this daily challenge, I’m learning more and more how to express empathy and grow in solidarity with the individuals I meet.
“Act in such a way that you are living proof of a loving God.”
“Be gentle with yourself, you’re doing the best you can.”
Kelsey McCarty (right) brings both joy and intentionality to her placement with VVC, working in the Social Services department. Her compassionate and caring presence speak well more than words, as she listens to and supports our neighbors in need.