Maybe you care for children, elderly parents, or both. Or you provide a shoulder for weepy friends. Maybe you work as a therapist. A nurse. A counselor. A bartender. Whatever you do, you probably spend a portion of your days comforting others—a task that demands real skill. Do it well, and it's both effective and rewarding; do it clumsily, and you'll end up feeling useless and (trust me, I've been there) depleted.

But how to do it well? It all comes down to three little words: Be like water.

Water is fluid, yet it tends toward stillness, and it's reflective. If you can embody these characteristics, you'll be able to benefit anyone in need.

Becoming mentally fluid means allowing people and situations to exist as they are without judging or trying to change them. This acceptance is important—it's the beginning of healing.

To be genuinely nonjudgmental, you need the second quality of water: stillness. You may think it disloyal to be happy when others are sad, healthy when they're ailing, or loved when they're lonely. And the more sympathetic you are, the more likely you'll feel as bad as the person you're trying to help. Unfortunately, that's like seeing an accident victim bleed out, then grabbing a knife and opening your own veins.

There's a passage by the Persian mystic poet Hafiz that reads, "Troubled? / Then stay with me, for I'm not." The best thing you can do for any troubled person is to become untroubled yourself. If I come to you with a broken heart and you feel sad for me, your job is not to stop my pain, but to return to happiness yourself. Instead of trying to feel better by fixing me, just feel better. This will give me the environment I need to solve my own problems. Everyone in distress just wants to walk beside still waters. Which brings us to the final water-inspired strategy for helping: reflectiveness.

Talk therapy owes much of its efficacy to the power of having a compassionate person reflect the thoughts of patients. But you needn't be a therapist to be that compassionate person. When someone comes to you with a problem, simply repeat the gist of whatever you hear them say. Like this:

ME: I'm having the worst day! I'm swamped at work, and my dog is sick!

YOU: You sound awfully overwhelmed.

ME: I'm worried I won't have time to take care of Bonkers.

YOU: It's hard to juggle a job and a sick pet.

On paper, this may seem... stupid. But if you're the one struggling, you'll be amazed how supported this kind of listening makes you feel.

When I first discovered that fluidity, stillness, and reflectiveness were all I needed to help people, I felt almost guilty. "I'm not telling you anything!" I'd protest to people seeking advice. "All I ever say is that if you get quiet enough to hear your true self, it will always tell you what to do."

"Whoa!" the client would say.

And then when she described her feelings, I'd repeat what she said. It took no effort on my part, but it helped her. So the next time someone needs you, relax. Stay fluid. Get still. Reflect. And imagine me murmuring into your ear, "Be water, my friend."

Martha Beck's latest book is The Martha Beck Collection: Essays for Creating Your Right Life, Volume One (Martha Beck Inc.).


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