The Sensitive Way


In dealing with each other, few principles are more important than kindness

Our Savior’s life and ministry exemplified the kind of compassion that lifts and strengthens lives, eases difficult burdens, and warms the hearts of all who feel its influence. Jesus knew the needs and desires of those about him, and it was partly his sensitivity to their deepest feelings which helped draw them into the circle of discipleship.

For most of us, however, sensitivity to others is more the exception than the rule; we are often so involved in our own lives and cares that we are insensitive to the needs of others. Or perhaps we’re caught off guard; we don’t know what to say; or we simply don’t pause to consider the immediate and/or long-term effects of our words and actions.

But emotional injuries, lost opportunities, and damaged relationships are all too often the results of such a lack of sensitivity. Consider a few pertinent examples:

1. A young Aaronic Priesthood holder attended his ward’s volleyball team practices faithfully. He wasn’t one of the best players, but he tried hard and did not miss a workout. His team won the stake championship.

After the game, the coach turned to three of the boys and said, “Fellows, you won’t be able to play in the regional playoffs because you’re not our best players. I am sorry, but we really want to win the regional championship.”

The “poor” player who told the story indicated that because he was told he wasn’t good enough to play in the games, he began questioning the truthfulness of the Church. This led to several years of inactivity.

2. Frequently, as married friends and loved ones we are anxious to help young adults find their eternal companions. Our intentions are good, but we sometimes hurt more than we help as we try to encourage them, remind them of their responsibility, and introduce them to the “neatest person.” Or we ask them how old they are or how long they’ve been home from their mission. These young adults are likely doing everything they can to find that companion, but we tend to make them feel uncomfortable or that they have not succeeded because they aren’t married.

3. A priesthood leader was quite concerned about an inactive college student who was home taught under his stewardship. Frequently the priesthood leader and the home teacher talked about ways they could activate this young woman.

One Sunday she ventured hesitantly into the Institute building a few minutes before sacrament meeting. The priesthood leader noticed, greeted her warmly, and introduced her to a number of young men and women, including several who had the same college major and whose homes were in the same geographical area as hers.

A friendly rapport was developing between this woman and her new friends, when suddenly her home teacher entered. He rushed over to the group and said, “Wowee, you finally came to church! But be careful: the walls are going to fall in because you’ve come. What a surprise!” The priesthood leader lost no time in poking him in the ribs; but he was so insensitive that he actually turned around and asked why he had been poked.

Later, the priesthood leader and several of the new friends tried to repair the damage. But this young woman had been deeply embarrassed and did not return to church.

Whatever our situation in life or our position in regard to the Church, each of us needs and appreciates the influence of sensitivity in our lives. How often have we been on the giving—or receiving—end of situations like these?

• The wife of a new bishop leaves sacrament meeting in tears because an older person turned around during the meeting and said, “Can’t you keep your children quiet?” She had been doing the best she could alone with her three tiny children.

• A young married couple who have thus far been unsuccessful in having a child learn that some ward members have speculated that they are postponing having children because they want to buy a home first. Other “well-meaning” friends ask every month, “Aren’t you pregnant yet?”

• An elderly couple are fighting to keep their spirits high as they realize that their bodies just aren’t keeping up. An idle comment cuts deeply: “My, you’ve been sick a lot. You haven’t been to church for so long.”

Regardless of age or circumstances, everyone can be offended by idle and insensitive remarks. Furthermore, we can lose important opportunities to serve. While it is true that individuals sometimes allow their feelings to be hurt too easily, we must remember the admonition of the Savior: “It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come!” (Luke 17:1.)

Some of us feel timid, insecure, or self-conscious in reaching out to someone who may need our help. He or she, we rationalize, has closer friends who will help and can do it better than we can. But it is quite possible that we need to benefit from giving of ourselves. And perhaps we can offer empathy and encouragement in our own way that no one else can.

Sometimes, too, our humor may be at the expense of others. Is there a barb in our joke? Could it hurt someone? Do we know the other person’s sensitive areas well enough to make what we feel is a humorous comment?

Sensitivity is achieved and refined as one strives to live a Christlike life and to be attuned to the promptings of the Holy Ghost. Christ’s compassion is noted more than sixty times in the four gospels. These incidents epitomize Jesus as the great exemplar of selflessness, patience, understanding, and acceptance, coupled with a deep sensitivity to the promptings of the Holy Ghost.

By patterning our lives after his life and teachings, we too can develop these qualities. Here are a few guidelines for developing and increasing our levels of sensitivity:

1. Establish as our highest goal in life the development of a Christlike character.

2. Remember the covenants that we make during the sacrament service to “always remember him,” thus striving daily and hourly to take upon ourselves his divine attributes of compassion and sensitivity. As we do this, we are promised that we will have his Spirit to be with us.

3. Think before we speak. Will what we say build character or destroy it? What are the other person’s sensitive areas? If we don’t know an individual well enough, then it’s best to avoid areas that may be controversial (such as speaking of children to a couple that does not have children, marriage to the unmarried, or church activity to the inactive).

4. Listen sensitively to what others say. If we do so, we will usually avoid saying the wrong thing (or even too much of the right thing). We should do more listening, less talking. To listen sensitively also requires seeking to understand what the person is feeling, as well as saying, and why he feels that way.

5. Develop patience. Rather than immediately judging an individual’s words or actions as being wrong, we should first seek the Spirit; for the Spirit will help us see the individual’s potential and show us how to judge rightly. Then, as prompted by the Spirit, we should patiently wait for the right time to teach and influence that person.

6. Recognize that church activity may cause those who have not participated from their childhood to feel uneasy. For example, a young man in the mission field felt it foreign to kneel in prayer so frequently during the day or to join family prayers in the mission home. This was a totally new and different experience to him; he needed to be understood and accepted with patience rather than criticized. Realize, too, that loneliness and feelings of isolation may plague an individual trying to increase his or her church activity without the support of family members.

7. Strive to understand the emotion behind a person’s words. Frequently a person gives some recognizable clue to his deepest feelings; yet unless we are striving to understand that individual, the clue is missed and the opportunity to help is lost.

By learning to live for and by the impressions of the Holy Ghost, we can not only meet our own needs better, but also become an instrument in the hands of the Lord to help lift the burdens of others. One of the greatest opportunities most of us have to be selflessly concerned about others is through priesthood home teaching and Relief Society visiting teaching. Every family can be strengthened as sensitive individuals come into their homes and perform acts of service, provide listening ears, and offer uplifting encouragement.

A few years ago two home teachers visited a family and asked how they were doing as a family and as individuals. Everyone responded “fine.” However, the message they had prepared for that family didn’t seem appropriate for some reason, and so they gave a different message that they felt was inspired of the Lord.

The home teachers left the home and were en route to their next appointment when the senior home teacher, who had given the message, felt they should return to the family. He felt they were needed there.

They returned to the home. After the father had gathered his surprised family together again, the home teachers told them that they had felt inspired to return and asked if they could be of further assistance. The father replied that they must have been inspired to come that particular day, give the message they did, and now return. One of the sons was trying to make a major decision in his life, and he needed some help.

The home teachers spent the next several hours listening to and counseling the discouraged young man. The young man later reported that he had received the encouragement he needed to make a decision. The experience forged a tie between the home teachers and the family that continues today and that has enabled the home teachers to give the family help when they needed it.

But home teachers aren’t the only ones who can receive help from the Spirit in being sensitive to the needs of others. Consider the example of the Laurel class teacher who has continued to take an interest in the girls she taught even after they left for college. During semester breaks she invites them to her home, where they catch up on the events of each other’s lives. Often the conversations continue late into the night and include some soul-stirring discussions about decisions on major fields of study at college, dating, living locations, engagements, how to obtain answers to prayer, and how to draw spiritually close to our Heavenly Father. The key to this continued relationship has been the sensitive way in which this sister has approached these young ladies. Seeking to be guided by the Holy Ghost, she has been blessed to help them find answers to difficult decisions.

These and similar examples show us the path one must take if he is to follow the sensitive way. To become sensitive is to become selfless. It is to become more concerned about others than we are for ourselves. In a word, it is to become Christlike. The Savior was so sensitive he knew what others were feeling before they spoke of them (see 3 Ne. 15:2; 3 Ne. 17:2; 3 Ne. 28:6) and what their needs were before being asked to help (see Luke 8:43–46). That kind of sensitivity requires inspired discernment as well as time and effort. But every act of service we perform, every note of encouragement we offer, every time we listen and appreciate before speaking and judging, every prompting from the Spirit that we follow, strengthens those around us and teaches us more perfectly the meaning of Christlike sensitivity.

[photo] Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten

John D. Whetten, a marketing executive, is a high councilor in the Concord California Stake.