When you’ve finally gathered rapport with someone, how can you create emotional safety to discuss what’s embarrassing or painful?

Emotional safety is one of the ways we express Jesus to a weary world:  “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). It’s how they glimpse a God who restores our soul (Psalm 23:3). 

To be an emotionally safe person, start here

Levels of emotional safety are directly tied to acceptance. If emotional safety is lost, the passport into that person’s heart is also lost. So keep a calm exterior, even when you don’t feel calm.

And by the way—this means acceptance is sensed long before a person is hurting. If, for example, someone overhears you responding in disbelief and disdain about a person’s porn problem, it’s unlikely they would approach you to talk about their same-sex attraction.

Communicating complete acceptance and lack of shame restates the gospel: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). His kindness leads to repentance (Romans 2:4).

Acceptance of a person is separate from accepting sin. God welcomes the dirty, unfaithful, and messy. Long before people are hurting, they know whether we’re safe by how we respond to others and to less sensitive issues.

A few more tips…

  • Trust God patiently even if the results you want don’t happen in one conversation.
  • Use fewer words, a calm voice, and lots of space and waiting between words. Sympathy is key. (Adding to drama is not.)
  • Observe messages sent by tone and body language of both of you.
  • Reflect to them what you think they’re saying. Then, “Am I getting you?”

Ask this:

  • What emotions and events do you associate with this struggle? What is/was this like for you?
  • What do you wish I would understand?
  • What are you afraid will happen? What do you want most to protect or just avoid?
  • What do you feel like doing?
  • What do you think God thinks of all this and wants you to do?

You may encounter some pain in these questions. But as Jesus demonstrated (with Nicodemus, the woman at the well, and the blind man in John 9), much of healing starts with careful listening.

Try these tips toward listening well.

More than a problem being fixed, prioritize that the speaker feels heard, received, and understood. Refrain from:

  • Interrupting.
  • Giving non-individualized, cliche, or pat answers.
  • Finishing sentences.
  • Talking immediately after they stop.
  • Planning your responses rather than listening (see Proverbs 18:2,13).
  • Proving yourself as wise or helpful.

Ask thoughtful, nurturing questions. Ideally, the person walks away feeling your listening gave them a better understanding of themselves.

Copyright © 2023 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.

Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills for Work-in-Progress Families (Harvest House), released October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.