20 Practical Care & Support Tips

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The purpose in a person's heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.
- Proverbs 20:5

We all have issues and we all need help. Recognizing that you yourself may need and would likely benefit from counseling is a great place to start to be able to help others. Your well goes deep and there’s much to work through. The greatest thing you can offer others is having walked through the pain of your own story. Many of people's struggles and issues can be deeply engaged within our community of faith. We want to help equip all of us to wisely and effectively handle one another's hearts with both grace and competency, to help them both heal and grow. Toward that end, here are 20 basic counseling tips to help as you engage with one another below the surface:

  1. Don’t quickly identify.  Don’t show how you know what that’s like or how something similar happened to you.  It feels natural.  And it is appropriate in some settings.  But if you’re wanting people to feel safe opening up, it typically doesn’t help.  It effectively takes the focus off of them, their story, their hurt, etc… and puts it on you.  And it even subtly dismisses their situation by making them feel unseen and invalidated.
  1. Listen and ask questions.  Bring great curiosity. What is God up to? There is great power in your mere presence.
  1. Resist the urge to quickly offer advice.  This actually isn't helpful.  If we were fixing a Buick, maybe.  But not when we’re engaging with people’s stories and hearts. 
  1. Validate their feelings.  No matter the rightness of the reasons for their feelings… they are feeling hurt (or sad or afraid, etc).  So it really helps them feel seen and valued to validate their feelings.  Often this must be done first before being able to talk more deeply about details or root issues.
  1. Their GREATEST need is for Jesus.  It is our secret goal to help them see this.  But it often takes lots of time, patience, wisdom, and care to get there. We cannot rush to this conclusion with someone and may often need to journey with them until the time is right to share this truth.
  1. Beware of the temptation to offer them mere moralism or legalism.  This point flows from the previous point.  The real hope for this person is not merely that they’d get their career back on track, or save their marriage, or quit looking at porn or sleeping around or getting drunk.  The real hope for them is not merely ultimate restoration of relationship with their children or friend.  Or for them to find a way out of their financial troubles.  We need to be wary of helping them just “do better.”
  1. Some presenting issues do need to be dealt with first before further progress (toward Christ or even general health) can be made.  Deeply depressed people need to take initial steps of dealing with their depression…especially the physical effects that can hinder their ability to actually be able to engage with the issues beneath their depression.  Medications here can often be the right first step (but always with an eye toward them seeing that their deepest need is for Christ).  Other issues of safety must often be addressed first.  One giving or receiving abuse must usually remove themselves from the situation for a while.  Those with addictions must get sober. 
    • Be aware of how multi-faceted people’s issues are – our biological, mental and spiritual faculties were all deeply broken as a result of the fall.
    • Help people get out of crisis mode so they can move towards maturity in the Gospel.
  1. Some things are “deal breakers.”  If someone tells you they’re going to kill themselves or harm others, you have to believe them.  No matter the context (within reason) you dignify them by believing them and bringing in the appropriate authorities or caregivers.  Suicide threats must be dealt with by going with them to a local crisis center, such as Pawnee here in Manhattan, or taking them to the ER or calling an ambulance if a local crisis center isn't an option.  Threats to others must be reported to the police.  This isn't being dishonest or disloyal by breaking confidence.  They broke the confidence, not you.  You were obligated out of care to respond seriously. 
  1. Give them your complete attention.  Don’t check your phone.  Don’t text.  Don’t take a call.  Don’t be doing laundry or cleaning the house.  Sit down with them.  Look them in the eyes.  Don’t just be thinking of what you’ll say next.  Be present and respond appropriately with verbal and nonverbal affirmation.  Don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions (but not too many).  This shows your interest.  Pay attention to your nonverbals.  Lean forward.  Don’t lean back or cross your arms.   Don’t interrupt.
  1. Don’t communicate surprise at what someone shares.  You can feel it inside, but don’t share it.  Shock or disgust will cause them to feel unsafe.  A Biblical view of sin and grace enables this.  Because of the rampant effects of sin, we should never really be surprised at what depths of sin people share with us (or indeed what we find in ourselves).  And yet grace and the Gospel gives us the freedom to engage with these people with grace and acceptance because we know how much we’ve been forgiven and the depths of the grace available from God.  Acceptance at this stage can lay critical foundation work for helping them embrace the Gospel.
  1. Tell them what you think they were trying to say.  “So what I hear from you is that you’re feeling _____ because of _____.”  Is that right?  This not only helps folks feel validated and shows you've been paying attention, but also helps clear up any misunderstanding (on either side).
  1. THANK them for sharing that with you.  Consider it a high honor, a gift even.  Know this, it really is.  The more you engage with people’s hearts, the more you begin to see that seeing inside the secret thoughts and hearts of eternal souls, beings made in the image of God himself…. IS a truly high honor. 
  1. Learn to ask yourself some basic questions while they’re sharing.  They usually point to important things:
    • Always be curious about the story beneath the story.  What is really at the bottom of what’s going on… even if the person sharing it doesn’t know themselves. What you see is not always what you get. The presenting issues may just be the tip of the iceberg…
    • Not only what they’re saying, but what they’re meaning. 
    • And what do you wonder. 
    • What jumped out to you?
    • Where did the person seem most connected or energetic?
    • What emotions keep coming up in them?
    • What emotions keep coming up in you?
    • Where did you feel bored?
    • Do you feel pressure to say or do anything?
    • Do you feel like you are having to work really hard to carry the conversation?
  1. In general, if you share anything about yourself, paint yourself in a negative light.  Share about how you failed at something.  Or how you made a mess of your life.  This helps them put down their guard against you being “holier than them”  -- which, on your own, apart from Christ, you’re surely not!
  1. When at all possible, communicate your love and acceptance of them.  But this must be real.  People can smell fakery.  Pray for this kind of heart.  It paves the way for them to think they could approach God this way, and be accepted likewise.
  1. Beware of just throwing Bible verses at them in response to what they share.  This usually at its core borders on moralism or legalism – ironic, huh?  Also, people often have great baggage with religious people not caring for their hearts, so it’s best to tread lightly here, at least at first.  But don’t shy away from sharing biblical truth – especially in context appropriate, non-churchy language.  This frankly shows that you truly know Scripture… not that you can parrot back verse references, but that the Word truly lives in your heart.  The right thing at the wrong time is the wrong thing.
  1. Offer the person HOPE – a vision for what you think their life could look like if they move forward (on a path towards Christ).  Communicate this vision and hope to them.  Make it specific and concrete.  Often this will require you to get the vision yourself intentionally.  Picture the person perfect.  Redeemed.  Whole and fully alive.  Pure and Holy.  Mature and complete in Christ.  This takes practice but is vital. 
  1. Beware of being the only person holding the rope.  Some people can knowingly or unknowingly tie a rope around their waists, hand you one end, and then jump off a bridge.  Then, dangling there they beg you not to let go.  This is manipulation and dependency.  And it is dangerous.  You’re not anyone’s savior.  And you can’t bear the weight of holding someone’s heart alone for long.  Always be looking for ways to involve others (usually just one extra person to start).  And don’t be afraid to confer with other leaders if you feel unsure. Push back on confidentiality. It takes a village…
  1. Look into some basic books, equipping classes, or podcasts about counseling – specifically personal issues.  Learn to spot basic and common mental illnesses, relational dysfunctions, and emotional states like depression. 
  1. And don’t forget: look for wise/strategic opportunities to steer people towards Christ.  Remember that their deepest needs are for Jesus, and only in Him will they ever become fully alive, fulfilled, happy, healthy, loved, healed, accepted, etc…

Also, the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation website has a lot of resources to offer. Check it out here: www.ccef.org

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