Men Lay Down Emotional Cards One at a Time

by | Oct 23, 2016

Don’t miss the special webinar invitation at the end of this blog!

I ran into Jim while standing in line at Starbucks. We’d known each other for years, so it was only natural to ask, “How are you today?”

I normally hear an upbeat, “I’m OK,” when I ask this question. Jim spoke those exact words, but there was a subtle inflection in his voice that hinted he was not OK.

Like a man laying down a single card while still holding others in his hand, he seemed to be sending an indirect signal: “Actually I’m not OK, but it’s hard for me to admit it, especially when I’m not sure that you care enough to get involved.”

By giving just a hint of his struggle, Jim was giving me an easy exit from the conversation while protecting himself from feeling rejected if I didn’t pick up on his need and care enough to lean in.

By God’s grace, I did sense the distress in his voice. And I immediately felt a genuine concern for what might be going on in his life. So I leaned slightly toward him and gently asked, “What’s going on, brother? You sound a bit down.”

“Oh no big deal. Family stuff. You know how it is.” Jim had just laid down his second card.

If I didn’t want to get involved, I could have walked away with a casual, “Yeah, family stuff can be tricky; I’ll be praying for you.” He would have been disappointed but not devastated, because he had not come right out and actually asked for help.

But I didn’t walk away. With even greater concern in my voice and eyes, I said, “Family stuff can be really hard. What’s happening at home?”

I could almost see the wheels turning in his head. He was asking himself, “Does Ken really care? Will he think I’m a failure if I tell him what’s happened? Will he try to give me a quick fix, or will he really try to understand?”

Still unsure of my heart, he tested me with a third card: “Oh you know how teenagers are. It can get pretty wild at times.”

It wasn’t so much his words but his tone of voice and look of uncertainty that convinced me that he was deeply troubled. Putting my hand on his shoulder and looking intently into his eyes, I earnestly asked, “Jim what’s going on? I want to help. Please tell me what’s happening with your kids.”

At that point Jim simply caved in. His shoulders slumped. The false smile gave way to a look of deep anguish. And he finally laid down his last card …

“Andy and I had a huge argument last night. I got so angry that I told him I could hardly wait until he left for college. He walked out the door yelling at me, and we haven’t seen him since.” Tears filled Jim’s eyes as his blurted out his deep fear. “I don’t know where my son is, Ken, and I’m scared of what he may do if I don’t find him soon.”

His whole hand was finally on the table. I now knew what to do. Giving his shoulder a gentle squeeze, I said, “Give me just a second.”

Pulling out my phone, I called my executive assistant. “Kris, something very important has come up, so I’ll need to bump the executive meeting back to this afternoon. Would you please reschedule that for me?”

A look of relief and hope spread over Jim’s as I turned back to him and pointed toward a secluded table, saying, “OK, brother. I’m all yours. Let’s sit down while you give me the full story, and then let’s go find that son of yours.”


As this story illustrates, many men find it difficult to share their emotions or admit that they feel weak and need help. Of course women can have the same tendency. As a result, they keep many fears and needs concealed in their hearts, giving only subtle hints of their struggles … which are often missed by those around them.

Would you like to improve your ability to pick up on these kinds of subtle cues? Here are a few practical ways you can do so.

  • Memorize and meditate on Proverbs 20:5: “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.” Then pray daily that God would give you a deeper love for the people around you and clearer insights into their hearts and lives.
  • Pay closer attention to other people’s body language, facial expressions and tone of voice, all of which provide clues to what they are thinking and feeling. As illustrated in Can You Read Faces, this ability could change the course of someone’s life.
  • Study and practice the Seven Steps to Empathy. To deepen these skills in your life and pass them on to your children, apply the principles described in Raising Empathetic Children.
  • Memorize the three questions that people are subconsciously asking themselves when trying to decide whether to open their lives to you (Can I trust you? Do you really care about me? Can you actually help me? see Building Passport) and consciously engage others in a way that they can easily answer yes to each one.
  • Resist the temptation to offer “quick fixes” for other’s problems, and instead take time to draw them out and make sure they feel that they’ve been fully heard and understood (see The Nail).
  • DRW 2.0 (200x200)Finally, if you’d like a clearly defined path for developing all of these relational skills—and many more—take advantage of our new online course, Discovering Relational Wisdom 2.0, which you can pursue individually or with a group of friends who share your desire to love and serve the people God brings into your life.

– Ken Sande

Special invitation: I’m scheduled to present a one-hour webinar on how to develop greater empathy on Tuesday, October 25, at 11 am MDT. It is being hosted by the European Forum of Christian Leaders. You can see a video recording of the webinar at this link. Here is a description of the session:

Do you have a hard time reading and relating to others? Without empathy, it’s hard to have real relationship, do effective ministry or share the gospel. The good news is that since each of us is made in the image of God, we have a natural capacity for developing and exercising God-like empathy. Sadly, many Christian leaders never cultivate this capacity, which stunts their ability to read other people, to show genuine compassion, and to minister in life-changing ways. In this webinar we will examine and illustrate seven practical ways to develop and exercise empathy and compassion, which can be summarized in a simple acrostic that we will explore in detail during the webinar. These skills apply to all of life and can enrich your marriage, parenting, ministry, friendships and, most importantly, your witness for Christ.

Reflection Questions

  • Have you ever struggled with a problem but were reluctant to share it with others? What held you back? What would have encouraged you to open up?
  • Have you ever dropped hints about a struggle, hoping someone would pick up on your cues and show genuine concern for what was going on in your life? What happened?
  • Think of a person who makes you feel safe and comfortable in sharing your struggles and needs. What is it about that person that creates a sense of safety? What qualities does he or she have that you’d like develop in your life?
  • Think back on the past week or two. Ask God to bring to mind any hints that people may have dropped hoping you would care enough to lean in. Then go to that person to see if there’s still an opportunity to offer some encouragement and support.

Permission to distribute: Please feel free to download, print, or electronically share this message in its entirety for non-commercial purposes with as many people as you like.

© 2016 Ken Sande

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