I hate, I hate, I hate being harassed by salespeople while I am shopping.
If I go into a store, after a salesperson greets me – which is normal! and fine! – I am the sort of person who wants to be left alone. Do not follow me, pointing out the virtues of every product I am looking at. Do not give me hollow compliments on my good taste. Do not walk behind me, nodding and making little murmuring sounds.
It’s funny, because my husband is the opposite. It excites him enormously when a herd of salespeople descend on him. He loves asking questions and getting recommendations and being guided. But I do not. Because when I’m being followed like that, all I feel is pressure. Buy this, buy this, buy this, is the beating heart behind every single second of our interaction.
When I went shopping a while back for a pair of glasses, I asked the salesperson where the red glasses were. She showed me, and then she said, “If you have any questions or concerns, let me know, okay?” And then she disappeared. I hemmed. I hawed. I tried on roughly 40 pairs of glasses. I asked my husband for his opinion. I tried on all 40 pairs all over again. I went to the salesperson and asked for the price, which she gave. And then I wandered off again to think and agonize over it.
I got the glasses, eventually. And in no small part because she gave me the freedom to really chew on whether or not I wanted them. If she’d forced me or asked me a million questions, I might have just given up and walked out.
The lesson: there is value in giving people the time and the space to work something out on their own.
For a long time, as a Christian, I used to be afraid of that. Back when I was a younger believer, if I knew a non-believer who was really interrogating their own thoughts and feelings, and had expressed an interest in Christianity, I had no intention of going anywhere before I made the hard sell. Morning, noon, and night I was on call: “What’re you thinking? How are you feeling? Any changes? Any new information I can provide? Questions? Concerns?” I had some weird idea in my head that if I slacked off, just for a minute – if I for one breath let my focus deviate from an Impending Spiritual Decision – any bad outcome would be my fault.
I’ve done this even with fellow believers. I’ve at times had the idea that if I was not right there constantly when a believer was going through a crisis or a struggle, I was somehow a bad support. That I needed to be keeping tabs on things 24-7 in order for my love and care to be meaningful, somehow. But that’s not always how it works. Sometimes people struggling through something or who are grieving need to be alone and take some time to process. Sometimes people need silence and an empty room. Sometimes the weight of someone standing over them asking “Are you okay? Do you need anything?” is just too much.
I’m not advocating for radio silence here, of course. Don’t assume that everyone will want space, or want the same amount of space. Knowing that the watched pot never boils doesn’t mean that you shrug and walk out of the kitchen, never to return. There is “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecc. 3:7).
Sometimes that does mean sticking with someone, if that person needs or wants the company. Sometimes that means reading people’s signals: do they seem to want some time alone? And sometimes, if you can’t read signals, it means straight up saying something: “I want to be here for you, but if you need some alone time or would prefer to be by yourself for a while, say the word. I understand completely and if I can help you in that way I’d be happy to.”
Walking away from someone and giving them time to think isn’t giving up on them. It isn’t resignation or despair. Giving someone a chance to process or reflect or even grieve alone isn’t a bad thing. To the contrary! Sometimes it’s necessary. A plant isn’t going to bloom the day you plant it just because you stand over it and perpetually give it encouragement and reasons to grow. Sometimes, it’s in the silence and the quiet place – alone, without someone standing over our shoulder – that people come to a moment or reckoning or reconciliation. And in those moments, it’s always a blessing to realize that those we love are only an email or a phone call away.
Giving people space while keeping your heart available is a needed and necessary skill for ministry.