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5 Ways to Create Space for Important Conversations

5 Ways to Create Space for Important Conversations

Have you ever felt like someone was hiding something from you? If you're like me, it's one of the most frustrating things to experience. Especially when it's someone you love. The other day I was talking with a friend who said she was in trouble...

"What kind of trouble?" I asked her.

No answer.

It didn't matter what I said or did; she wasn't going to tell me.

"I keep my problems inside," she said.

Ouch.

If you're the parent of a teenager, you've likely heard a similar response. It's her choice to share or not to share, so I respected that. But with the way I'm wired, it's hard to leave things there.

I'm a trained victim advocate. A social worker. I hear crazy stories all the time. I know people who have
been raped, trafficked, beaten, intimidated, robbed, and stalked. I've talked to kids who have stepped between parents during a violent outburst. I work with kids who have been called every horrible name under the sun.

Because of these situations, people often cope with "
socially unacceptable" things. Some turn to drugs, others to alcohol, others run right back into the arms of their abusers. Some cut, become bullies, contemplate suicide, or even attempt. Like other advocates, I've heard it all, and I'm not here to judge.

I love hearing these stories because
I believe there is power in sharing our experiences. Healing comes when we process our pain, confusion, and shame with someone who cares. At the core of who we are as humans, we want to be known. We want someone to hear us, believe us, and care about us deeply.

But often we are so afraid of rejection or judgment that we don't open up to others. You have to
trust someone to tell them what's going on inside. And that is EXTREMELY difficult for victims and survivors of crime.

So what do we do? As caring, loving individuals who want to make a difference, how do we show we are trustworthy? How do we create space for our loved ones to have difficult conversations with us? If it's not always easy for me as a social worker, how can anyone else do it?

Well, good news!!! (It's about time we had some of that.) There are things you can do that create an atmosphere for disclosure. As a parent, you
can earn your child's trust. As a friend, you can build stronger relationships. As a teacher, you can show that you are someone to confide in. And in many other relationships, you can prove that you are worth trusting with the truth.

If you know someone who is struggling and want to create a safe space for them to confide in you, follow these 5 steps:

1. Show you care. The age-old axiom, "People don't care how much you know until they know you care," is so true. Be present for those you love. Whether someone wants to confide in you or not, investing in their life shows that you care about them. Support them, love them, and celebrate who they are. Spend time with them and find out what they care about. When you show you value the things they value, you earn a bit of respect. And when you care for them, trust begins to form.

2. Earn their trust. Trust is a very delicate thing. It takes much more effort to build it than to destroy it. As your relationship develops, you can't expect them to talk about deep issues right away. That comes with time and more trust. Start small. Ask questions about family, friends, and activities. Show that you can be trustworthy with the small things. As they see how you support them with small things, bigger issues will come out. 

3. Listen without judgment. It's easy to respond to disclosures with shock, denial, or surprised facial expressions. But as much as possible, avoid emotional responses. Trauma causes us to distrust people. A survivor might disclose a tiny bit of their story as a way to test the water. If you respond to that with disgust or disbelief, you can bet they will keep the rest of the story to themselves. But if you are calm and understanding, they might feel comfortable enough to tell you everything. Remember: this is their life. What they actually experienced. If it makes you feel disgusting or shameful, just imagine how it made them feel.

4. Ask good questions. Questions that create a safe space are open-ended and non-accusatory. "Yes/No" and "Why" questions tend to make people shut down, so avoid them whenever possible. In contrast, questions like, "How did you respond to that?", "How do you feel about what happened?", or "What do you want to do now?" invite someone to share more. Your questions should make the other person feel heard, respected, and empowered.

5. Follow up. If you've made it through steps 1-4, you're doing really well. But don't leave it there! If someone takes the risk to open up to you, you HAVE to do something. If you don't, everything you did above was wasted. You might not know what to do in response, but guess what? Even professionals don't always know! It's not about having all the answers or responding perfectly. It's about being willing to do what your loved one needs. Ask what you can do, and whenever possible, do it! Stick by them even when it's hard. Hear me though: following up does not mean offering all your advice. It doesn't mean you insist they call the cops, leave an abuser, or have a rap kit done. You ask what your loved one wants to do, and in any way possible, you support that. If they don't want to do anything, you accept that. But don't leave it there. Ask them about it the next time you see them. Show them you are in it with them for the long haul.
 
Creating space for conversations is an art. It takes time, practice, and patience to get good at it. But it is worth every ounce of effort you put into it. Don't give up. Your loved ones need your caring heart and listening ear.
 
If you want to talk to an advocate (who is trained in having these conversations), call 1.800.770.1650 or text IOWAHELP to 20121.