When people you care about are upset or anxious, what is the best way for you to comfort and support them? The answer is a lot simpler than you might think, and a little more challenging than you might expect. First, let’s go over the things that will NOT help, and may result in an argument with the person you are trying to help:
- Saying everything is going to turn out well
- Telling them that you can relate because something similar happened to you
- Trying to explain why things are a lot better than they seem
- Encouraging them to focus on things that are going well
- Suggesting that they “look on the bright side”
- Giving advice about how to solve the problem
- Sharing stories about how even worse things have happened to you
When someone we love is upset, we become upset too. We want to help make the pain go away, quickly, so we jump in and try to fix things. We give advice, share stories, or promise things will be better. But these things don’t usually work. Sometimes they even make the other person more upset, and we feel like the other person wants to be upset, like the other person is rejecting our offers of help. We become frustrated, and the other person becomes frustrated. Perhaps we even argue. This is not the way.
When someone is upset, or anxious, or sad, what they need more than anything is a sense of connection. We want to feel that somebody else understands us, gets our situation, cares about us, and believes us. When someone tries to make us feel better by giving us advice or telling us how they’ve gone through even worse times, it can feel like they are rushing us to feel better, like they are trying to fix us, rather than trying to understand us. We need things to be slower, and we need the attention to be on us, rather than on the solution.
So how can we comfort and support someone who is upset, or anxious, or sad?
We can listen.
We can listen well. We can listen with the intention of understanding the other person’s experience, rather than with the intention of coming up with a solution. We show the other person, again and again, that we care about their experience and that we respect their point of view, by paying attention to what she is saying and by checking with her to make sure we got it right. We can listen. That’s all.
It’s hard to do. There is a great temptation to try to fix how the other person feels. But listening is the best medicine. Actually, connection is the best medicine, and listening deeply is the best way to create (or re-create) that connection.
There are simple techniques that will help you become a better listener. They will help you support loved ones when they are upset, form closer connections with them and strengthen your relationship. I will be writing a series of posts to help you learn about these techniques. Subscribe to this blog to get these posts.