When I participated in leadership training with a group of CEOs led by Dr. John Townsend, we learned a key concept known as “getting in the well.”
As Dr. Townsend explained it, when a person falls into a deep well and cannot escape, the last thing needed is another person standing at the top, yelling down to them that everything will be ok. They don’t need to hear Bible verses, self-help quotes, or positive thinking mantras. What they need in that situation is for someone to get down in the well with them. They need a hug; someone to agree that the dark, cold wet they feel is harsh, that the pain from their injury is real, and that assurance they are not on their own.
We get in the well with others in crisis when we stop shift our instinctual first step from trying to “fix it” to choosing to be with them in it.
Why Your Attempts to “Fix It” Don’t Work
As husbands, fathers, friends, and leaders, we are often the trusted, go-to confidants when those around us have problems. Now, if you’re like me, your typical response may be to tell people what they must do to escape their well instead of getting into the well with them.
This “fixing it first” mentality doesn’t work though. It makes people feel as if you don’t understand their situation. It creates resentment towards your attempts to solve their problems, and it often causes others to completely ignore the solutions you offer.
The Heart of the “Fix It” Issue
We often try to “fix it first” for several reasons. We typically don’t have the time to sit and listen to their story, so we rush things along by offering an answer. Other times, we feel uncomfortable with the feelings that are triggered in the story that is shared. We try to get them to stop by pushing the other person along to a solution, ineffectively shoving down our own emotions. Or, maybe we try to “fix it” because we feel like we know exactly what is going on and believe we have the answer they need.
These, and other reasons, drive us to a place that shuts down a relational connection with the other person. The lost opportunity for connection diminishes our relationship, and it often leaves the other person feeling alone, frustrated, ashamed, or lonely.
How to Listen & Lament With Others
Dr. Townsend makes his students practice attuning themselves to others’ feelings by observing, listening, and asking good questions. Students are then asked to join the person in the difficult emotions. They can gauge the level of connection by listening for responses like, “I really feel like you understand” or “ I feel like you are with me.” These responses indicate that the connection is being made.
As the process continues, students are coached to refrain from problem-solving unless the person specifically asks for it. Instead, Dr. Townsend instructs them to focus on being present in their emotions—making sure to not allow their own emotions to take center stage.
Growing in Attunement
“Getting in the well” is a very powerful tool for connecting to the hearts of people in your life. But if I’m honest, I have found that I am not naturally gifted at these relational skills. I must continuously practice them and ask for forgiveness for resorting to my instinct of problem-solving before empathizing. The times I have succeeded have been endearing and rewarding. In those moments, the person I was with felt loved and heard, and I see God at work in our friendship.
Let me encourage you: relational connection is difficult for most men, myself included. But it can be learned through practice and good coaching. As you learn, know that the expressions of love that you increasingly show toward those around you are reflections of Christ, and they will not return void.