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Counseling, Mentoring, or Helping Friends

Part 2: Listen carefully to others’ words and emotions, encourage them to talk, offer hope

Doug Britton, MFT

Page Summary
Summary: Listen carefully and offer hope as a friend, counselor, mentor, pastor, or teacher. Listening, not talking, is the most important part of helping others.

Part 2 of a 4-part series on “Counseling, Mentoring, or Helping Friends”

Part 1      Part 3      Part 4


It can be hard to know how to genuinely help people who want to discuss personal problems or issues. In this four-part series, you will read guidelines that can help you know what to do when friends come to you for help. Many of these guidelines, insights, and “tools” can also help you if you are a counselor, mentor, pastor, or teacher.

These guidelines are based on the Bible’s truths, plus my experiences counseling thousands of people over the years, as well as my experiences helping many people in informal settings.

When you meet, offer to pray

When you’re talking with friends and they say they’d like to talk about personal problems or issues, it’s usually a good idea to ask if it’s okay if you pray first. Invite Jesus into your conversation.

What do you think?

1. Are you comfortable asking people if it’s okay with them if you pray before you talk? Why or why not?

2. What would you say if someone doesn’t want to pray? Explain your answer.

Listen to deeply understand

Listening, not talking, is the most important part of helping others. It’s possible to listen to people and then accurately quote everything they said, yet not understand their heart.

When you listen to people, make it your goal to deeply understand them. Try to grasp what they think and feel—to enter their world, to see through their eyes.

When you deeply understand what people are saying, you build the foundation for an intelligent and meaningful conversation. When you listen superficially, you lay the groundwork for a shallow discussion, one likely to frustrate both of you. You may leave the other person feeling misunderstood and alone.

Be quick to listen, slow to speak. (James 1:19)

Make it personal

3. How well do you listen? Explain your answer.

4. What do you think you could do to be a better listener?

Related: Listen carefully to deeply understand

Realize you may misinterpret people.

It’s easy to misinterpret what others say. If you’re sure you know what someone is about to say, his or her words can sail through your mind like wind whistling through trees. Be careful. Don’t be satisfied with simplistic interpretations of that person’s words, mood, or actions, no matter how sure you are that you are right. Here are some reasons you may misinterpret:

Past experiences with others

Our past experiences in life affect how we think and respond. For example, if you heard one of your parents tell the other that he or she was working late and later learned your parent was having an affair, you might be suspicious if someone says his or her spouse frequently works late.

Stereotypes about men or women

It’s hard not to stereotype the ways men and women think. Countless books describe differences between the sexes. Plus we have all had personal experiences that cause us to expect certain types of behavior. The trouble is that these stereotypes may not describe the person you are talking to. People are different. Seek to hear and know someone as an individual.

Psychological assumptions

Many of us have been exposed to psychological theories. We try to “psychoanalyze” other people. If that describes you, be careful. There’s an excellent chance your conclusions are wrong. On the other hand, there’s a chance your interpretation has some truth to it. Ask God to help you listen carefully with wisdom and insight.

Make it personal

5. Describe a time you misinterpreted what someone said. Why do you think you misinterpreted him or her?

6. What steps can you take to make it less likely you will misinterpret other people’s words?

Ask clarifying questions.

See yourself as a researcher trying to grasp a hidden mystery. Show a genuine interest in what people say. Don’t interrupt or explain your point of view. Instead, ask clarifying questions.

The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out. (Proverbs 20:5)

Paraphrase what people say.

One way to know if you understand what people say is to repeat what you think they said in your own words. For example, when someone says something:

  • Repeat his or her message in your own words.
  • Ask if you got it right.
  • If he or she says you didn’t get it right, ask where you missed the point. Don’t argue. Remember, your goal is to deeply understand.

Listen to emotions, not just words.

If you only listen to someone’s words, you may miss what he or she is really saying. Listen to the literal message, but also ask yourself, “Why is he or she saying this? What are the underlying emotions?” Try to understand or “hear” these emotions. They sometimes bear little resemblance to the words. For example, in the case of one couple I counseled, the wife screamed angry accusations at her husband. He reacted with anger. He had no idea, until we analyzed what she was feeling, that her accusations were prompted by her fear that he didn’t love her. She was secretly hoping he would reassure her by saying “I love you.” Of course, she needed to learn better ways to ask for reassurance. However, it helped him when he understood what was behind her words.

What do you think?

7. Is it important to hear someone’s heart, not just his or her words? Why or why not?

8. What are some ways you can “listen” to emotions? Explain your answer.

Keep the other person involved in the conversation

One of the easiest mistakes we can make is to talk too much. We give advice. We explain. We argue. We give speeches. We teach. None of this is likely to do much good if the other person is not an active participant in the conversation.

Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues. (Proverbs 10:19

Ask open-ended questions.

If you ask a question that can be answered with “yes” or “no,” that may be the only answer you get. Instead, say something that can’t be answered with “yes” or “no.” For example, “Describe what happened,” or ask “How did that make you feel?”

Encourage people to express their feelings.

Everybody, even the strongest, bravest, and purest of us, sometimes experiences fears, anxiety, discouragement, or temptation. Ask people what they are feeling. If someone voices fears, sometimes it’s best not to immediately interrupt with words of comfort. Give people enough time to fully express their feelings before you respond.

Don’t focus on what you will say.

Do you ever find yourself planning what to say instead of listening intently? I have done that many times. We need to train ourselves to focus more on understanding what is being communicated and less on how we will respond.

What do you think?

9. Why is it important to get the other person involved in the conversation?

10. How will you discipline yourself not to talk too much?

11. What steps will you take to encourage others to talk?

Give hope

In the book of Job, we read about the severe trials that Job, a man of God, went through. We also read the poor counsel he received from his companions, advice without compassion or understanding. Job listened to these men’s condemning speeches and then responded, “I have heard many things like these; you are miserable comforters, all of you!” (Job 16:2). Don’t be like Job’s “comforters.” Instead, learn from Jesus’ example. He knows us deeply and completely. He understands what we are going through. When he speaks, it is out of love and compassion.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)

When you talk with people, make it your goal to help them realize that there is hope with God’s help. Encourage them that God is able to do more than we can imagine. Even if their circumstances don’t change, they can find hope because he is with them, he loves them, and he has a plan for them.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us … (Ephesians 3:20)

Related: Be an encourager

Some ways to give hope

When you talk with people, one or more of the following ideas may help you give hope:

Reassure them that their problems are not unique.

People often feel alone in their unhappiness. For example, they may think no one else has sinned the way they sinned, or they may think there is something uniquely wrong with them. That’s not true. Everyone alive has done or said things—oftentimes terrible things—they would not want exposed No one is uniquely bad.

Reassure them of God’s forgiveness.

No matter what people have done, God’s forgiveness is available to them.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

Reassure them of God’s love for them.

Read Ephesians 3:14-19 with them. Before you read this passage, ask God to help them make it their personal prayer. Let them know they have worth, and that God loves them. He has a plan for their lives.

Related: God’s love for you, God’s love for me

Make it personal

12. Why is it important to give hope? Explain your answer.

Memory verse

Be quick to listen, slow to speak. (James 1:19)

Personal application

1. Explain why listening is usually more important than talking.

2. If you are able to repeat what someone says, does that mean you are a good listener? Why or why not?

3. What is a clarifying question? Why can clarifying questions be useful?

4. Describe one time when you misinterpreted someone. (If you can’t think of any situations, described a time someone misinterpreted you.)

5. Why is it helpful to ask open-ended questions?

6. Do you ever talk too much instead of encouraging the other person to talk? Explain your answer.

7. Say a prayer asking God to help you be a better listener.

8. Describe a situation in which someone might feel hopeless. How would you offer this person hope? Explain your answer.

Parts three and four of this series are coming January, 2021

If you would like to get an email announcing when they are posted, please sign up for our newsletter at the bottom of this page.

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About Doug Britton, MFT

Doug Britton, Bible-based Marriage and Family Therapist, has helped hundreds of thousands of people as a therapist, clinical director of a treatment center, seminar speaker, radio cohost, and author of over twenty books that show how to apply God's truths in your daily life. (Visit www.dougbrittonbooks.com.)

Copyright © 2020 Doug Britton. Permission granted to print for personal use. (Scripture verses are from the New International Version, copyright © 1984.) See reprint policy.

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