Friday, November 23, 2012

What's the Best Thing to Say to a Troubled Person?

Statement:  "Every time I drive along that highway, I think about turning sharply and going over the edge."

Response:  "Don't do that.  Your insurance will go up if you total your car."

Statement:  "My mom overdosed last night.  She's in the psych ward now."

Response:  " "Your mom is in the psycho ward?  Yup, sounds about right."

Statement:  "My husband is so depressed, he cut a hole in the ceiling so that he could hang a rope from the joist.  Every day, when I come home from work, I climb up on a chair and cut the rope down."

Response:  "Sounds like he's bi-polar. Hey, have you heard this one?  How many manic-depressives does it take to change a light bulb?  Two. One to get the ladder -- and one to get the rope."

Have you ever heard a troubling statement from someone?  You might immediately give the person advice.  You might say something encouraging like, "Don't worry.  You'll be fine.  Everything will work out."  Maybe your first response is, "I'm sorry to hear that."  Maybe you make an offhand comment or inappropriate joke like the ones above.  These responses are not helpful.  These responses might leave the troubled person  feeling rejected, judged, barraged, isolated, and angry.  The troubled person shuts down and does not want to share any further.

So what can you say when you care about a person and want to help?

Hear what the other person is feeling and reflect it back.  This is just the first step but it is the most important.  You want the other person to know that you hear and are trying to understand.  You are not going to barrage them with your interpretations and advice.  You are not going to tell them your feelings, at least not yet.  "I'm sorry to hear that" is about your feelings and focuses on you, not the other person.  "You'll be fine" tells the other person that you do not want to deal with their problem.  "Everything will work out" is a brush-off.

Use one of these sentence starters:

I guess you're feeling . . .  Is that it?
You seem . . . 
It sounds like . . . Is that it?
I guess you wish . . . Is that it?
You sound upset (angry, frustrated).  What's up?
You seem worried that ... is going to happen.  Is that it?

Tentatively suggest a feeling.  If you want to expand your vocabulary of emotions, here is the NVC list of feelings.

If you really, really want to give advice so that the other person will actually hear you, say

1.  So you’re saying . . . [paraphrase their thoughts and feelings about the problem]
2.  What have you tried so far?
3.  How did that work?
4.  What else have you considered? 

Chances are the troubled person has thought more about his or her problem than you have.  With these questions, you will get a chance to understand the problem more deeply and see what real or imagined barriers keep the person stuck in their problem.  Finally, you can say:

Do you want to know what I think? or
Do you want to know what I did when that happened to me?

There's a chance they might say "yes."  They now feel understood and have agreed to listen to your ideas.

Listening is difficult.  It takes practice.
What troubling statements have you heard?  How did you answer?
Do you hate when people give you unasked-for advice or tell you to relax?

1 comment:

  1. Yesterday evening, before reading this entry, I had a conversation with a challenging statement. I ended up using the listening technique I learned from Co-Counseling (a kind of reciprocal counseling session) .

    If someone is going through something tough, my experience is teaching me to just let that person get it out as much as possible. The more they sift through their own emotions, put words to it, etc. the less a burden they carry, the better they feel and the more clear their next decision will be in relation to the issue. At least that's my experience, and that seems to be what your blog entry said as well. The wholesome, considerate gift of listening! Great post (and not just because it reaffirms my reaction : ).