John McMillin: Tough conversations key to help those in need

John McMillin • Updated Oct 1, 2018 at 8:00 AM

I would venture that many if not most people don’t know everything we do at United Way of Wilson County and the Upper Cumberland.  A lot of people see us raising funds, and they know we have several partners that help people through difficult situations. 

Still, even though many have used our program services, unless you’re involved on a daily basis with any non-profit, most people won’t have an in-depth knowledge of what we do on a day-to-day basis. 

Probably one of the most important things we do for people is to listen. I know that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but to someone who’s dealing with a life-changing situation such as homelessness, physical or sexual abuse, loss of a loved one or even simply a job, listening is key to getting real help for that person.

Many times, someone calls in to our office fully stressed. They may even strike out verbally because they are at their emotional worst. They may begin by telling us of either bad decision they’ve made or potential ones they’re thinking of to solve their problem.  With that in mind I wanted to share some insight we’ve used over the years to help.

Should there be someone in your life that you’re worried about, remember that people often want to talk, but they wait until someone asks.  In this case, ask open questions like, “How do you feel about…” “What happened with…” or “Tell me about…”

Show interest by repeating what they tell you to show you understand and listen carefully to ask more questions.  Don’t attempt to solve the problem, instead focus on your friend’s feelings. Remember that simply showing you care can be the biggest help of all for most people.

Of course, respect what someone in a difficult situation tells you. It’s human nature to want to fix someone’s problems, but it’s very important to let people make their own decisions. Sometimes people who think they have the answers to a problem are less helpful. If the issue they’re dealing with is potentially harmful or life altering, then it’s best to listen and encourage them to seek a professional’s help.

You might try some helpful ways to encourage someone to seek a counselor or professional help by asking them, “Have you talked to anyone else about the issue?” “Would you like to talk with a professional about this?”

The person may be reluctant to talk with anyone. In that case, you might ask if they have someone they trust that they can go to for help or offer to be their “ear” without judgment. When in doubt, remember that United Way offers a 211 help line in which people can simply call 211, briefly tell of their issue or need and the operator will develop a list of any available professionals and resources.

Finally, don’t make promises you can’t keep and remember that caretakers are sometimes affected by taking on too much of other’s problems. At the end of the day, your understanding and willingness to help and care will help almost anyone through most issues. 

John McMillin is president of United Way of Wilson County and the Upper Cumberland. Email him at [email protected]

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