“At least you have a child.” “Well, it’s good you can work from home.” “Other people would kill to have your life.” “It could be worse.” “Don’t worry about it.” “You’re overreacting.” “You’ll live.” “Suck it up.” “Stop being so negative.”
We all view the world through the lens of our own experiences, which can hinder our compassion. We may not be able to relate to others. When someone divulges their struggles, we may feel resentful or believe their worries are trivial. Sharing these judgmental thoughts with that person though is cruel, and will impact your relationship. Developing a more caring communications strategy is crucial to maintaining thriving relationships.
I’ve become passionate about learning how to craft effective messages, after years of honing my interest in communication theory through college, university and working life. Also, like all humans, I have struggled. Through dealing with mental and physical illness alone, I’ve gone through a crash-course in communicating struggle. None of this makes me flawless or a perfect communicator. However, I recognize the immense power of language to impact our well-being.
We may think that we’re trying our best but intention does not equal impact. Even if we believe we have good intent, we can still act with ignorance. This doesn’t make us horrible people. However with self-reflection, we can ensure our good intentions lead to positive results too. I’m constantly learning what is useful or harmful when I discuss my life and have begun using this experience to reflect on how I treat other people. I’d like to share those insights with you so that hopefully we can all be a little bit more empathetic in our conversations.
Be comfortable with saying “I don’t know”
Sharing the details of your life can be complicated. Whether it’s determining an answer to the seemingly-benign question of “How are you?” or to something more intrusive, human interaction requires varying levels of vulnerability. Unfortunately, sharing any detail about your life, no matter how mundane, can become an emotionally jarring experience when the receiver mishandles the message. This communication breakdown is not necessarily their fault as an individual. They may have never been taught how to respond. They can only experience the world from their individual perspective. As a result, many people often don’t consider the differences in life experiences between two parties before speaking.
Despite the logical barriers that exist, it’s important to acknowledge that it requires exhausting emotional labour from the person struggling when someone responds poorly. Unfortunately, the interaction will most likely leave the sharer feeling even more isolated and distressed than before. But we don’t need to waste time worrying about determining the exact perfect thing to say. This often leads to saying nothing and avoiding the other person out of fear. We don’t need to have all the answers. Rather, we can just do our best to convey the right emotions. A response I receive occasionally that I find validating is “I don’t know what to say. This is really hard. I love you.”
Give them space to tell their story
“The only reason why we ask other people how their weekend was is so we can tell them about our own weekend.” — Chuck Palahniuk
When a person begins to share their struggle, try your best to give them space to finish expressing their thoughts. You can maintain the safety they feel around you by avoiding derailing the conversation. When I’m about to share my thoughts on a sensitive topic, I’m typically riddled with anxiety. It can also take me a while to figure out what to say. If someone breaks my concentration, I may lose my train of thought — and my nerve too. We need to avoid interrupting or inserting ourselves into the story, particularly when it’s not over. I try hard to prevent myself from starting to tell my own story — because from personal experience, I know it will distract from the conversation. The other person won’t end up feeling heard. Even if you’ve both encountered a similar experience, this is not the right time to equate your experience with theirs.
We often inquire after other people in order to talk about ourselves. We’re all guilty, myself included. Celeste Headlee, author of We Need To Talk: How To Have Conversations That Matter, references a term in her book coined by sociologist Charles Derber called “conversational narcissism.” She writes:
“It’s the desire to take over a conversation, to do most of the talking, and to turn the focus of the exchange to yourself. It is often subtle and unconscious.”
Reading this resonated with me in an uncomfortable way. However, knowing this about myself, I do my best to enter into each conversation with genuine interest and set myself aside for a bit. It’s challenging when your mind is preoccupied with your own stresses, but it strengthens your relationships to prioritize your loved one.
Allow dark feelings to surface
Most people are capable of practising gratitude and putting their problems into perspective. In a moment of emotional pain, they need their loved ones to provide compassion. Instead, sometimes we unintentionally end up minimizing their concerns. I’ve heard from some people that they personally find it comforting to remind themselves that others have it worse. It is certainly important to reflect on one’s privilege. However, forcing another person to do this during a moment of anguish is inappropriate — particularly when they need comfort.
“The two things we want to know when we’re in pain are that we’re not crazy to feel the way we do and that we have support.”― Sheryl Sandberg, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy
Rather than telling them that it could be worse or trying to find a silver lining for them, trust that they can find their own good in the world but need a few minutes to vent. They know that they have great qualities in their life despite their struggles, but right now, their despair needs a chance to be aired too. You might think you are protecting your loved one by distracting them from their pain, but glossing over the bad times will not erase them. It’s not always desirable to bypass difficult emotions. It might be hard for you to hear about their pain, but they need you. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know that if I’m given a few minutes to discuss my struggles, it’s much easier for me to move on to more pleasant topics.
“Sometimes, we only need to know people are thinking about us and don’t need to always talk about what we are feeling.”― Kelsey Crowe, There Is No Good Card for This: What To Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love
Ask open-ended and curious questions
I’ve come to realize that how we check in on others matters. While we don’t typically reflect deeply before sending a quick message or phrasing a question, the small nuances of language can make a tremendous difference.
I know that I respond the best to questions that are crafted as open-ended,without any attached value-based judgment statements. For example, I definitely prefer when people ask me “How are you feeling?” than when they say “Hope you’re feeling better!” or “Hope things are good with you!” While the speaker/sender may have compassionate intentions, these statements can be put me in an awkward position. My stress ramps up as I contemplate the consequences of my answer: “If I’m fully honest that I’m doing not feeling better or that things are going poorly, I might seem too negative. They might think I’m a Debbie Downer. I might disappoint them.” As a result, when someone phrases their sentiment in this way, I’m more inclined to be less open, and then revert to retreating and isolating.
“All over the world, there is cultural pressure to conceal negative emotions…in the United States, we like excitement (OMG!) and enthusiasm (LOL!). As psychologist David Caruso observes, “American culture demands that the answer to the question ‘How are you?’ is not just ‘good. …we need to be ‘awesome.’ ” Caruso adds, “There’s this relentless drive to mask the expression of our true underlying feelings.” Admitting that you’re having a rough time is “almost inappropriate.” ― Sheryl Sandberg, author of Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy
Acknowledge their intelligence by withholding your advice
You might feel like you have the perfect advice to offer someone in need. I know it can be hard to see someone you love struggling, and you want to do whatever you can to help. Often, simply listening is all you need to do. Your family member or friend has been living in their own unique situation for every second of every day. Most likely, they have already tried whatever you might suggest. They may also be receiving unsolicited advice from dozens of other people simultaneously, which can be overwhelming and exhausting. Continuing to ask curious and compassionate questions is a great idea — rather than offering your opinion when they express that they are struggling. This is more meaningful than speculating or making comments on their lifestyle.
If you truly believe that you have advice that could make a difference and can’t let it go, offer it respectfully. It’s always best to assume your friend is smart and has already considered your suggestion. Ask them first if they have the mental capacity for receiving advice, and if they say no, respect their decision. If they say yes, you can then say “I’ve heard that this works for some people. I’m sure you’ve already tried this, but if not, I thought I’d pass it along in case it works for you.” Acknowledging the complexity of the individual and their unique circumstances can go a long way. There is no single perfect solution to any problem and anyone claiming to know the ultimate answer is lying. You as an individual will never fix their problem because the tough situations do not have quick fixes. The best way you can help is by showing your unwavering support and demonstrating your confidence in their capability and resilience.
Help them feel valuable
Counting our blessings doesn’t boost our confidence or our effort, but counting our contributions can.” ― Sheryl Sandberg, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy
While I’ve struggled with illness or with any other intense situation, my ability to engage in certain activities is impacted, leading to a downward spiral in my mental health. For example, my self-esteem has dwindled significantly since I’ve essentially been unemployed for three years, besides the occasional freelance project. I am also highly dependent on others in many physical and emotional ways, leading me to often feel like a burden who doesn’t provide much value. It makes a huge difference when people take the time to intentionally or unintentionally make me feel valuable. When I get a message from a friend telling me about how I’ve helped them, thanking me for a recommendation or just demonstrating that I’m an asset to their life — it really boosts my mood. When someone you love is struggling, highlighting their skills and strengths can be an excellent way to make them feel appreciated and less alone.
Reduce their stress
It can be hard to take the leap and share openly about a difficult circumstance, particularly when you’re in the thick of a stressful situation. You might not have much energy to talk about anything at all. When reaching out to a friend in need, you can demonstrate compassion by reducing the pressure to respond. You can try phrasing your sentiment along the lines of: “You don’t have to talk right now, but I just wanted to let you know I’m here for you.” This lets them off the hook, allowing them to focus their limited energy where they find it necessary. However, you should absolutely continue to check in, even though your friend or family member may not be in a place to respond right away. And please know that it isn’t personal. You can continue reducing the pressure, while helping them feel less alone by sending them reminders that you are thinking about them. This can be a short-but-sweet message, a cute animal photo or recommendations for a feel-good movie.
Be specific when offering help
When someone says they’re struggling, you might respond “Let me know if you need anything.” It’s beautiful that you want them to know you care. However, it can be exhausting to decipher this statement. They usually don’t know what type of support you are willing to provide or what is appropriate to ask from you. They worry about being a burden or stepping over a line. So they probably won’t take you up on your kind offer. Instead, it would be wonderful to offer specific, practical ways where you can provide support, while remaining open to other options. Some suggestions:
“Can I buy you groceries? Can I make that phone call for you? Can I research this topic for you? I’m good with administrative tasks, I can do paperwork. I can cook some meals to drop off at your door. Let me know any dietary restrictions. I can walk your dog. I can feed your cat. I can take your children for a few hours so you can nap or have time to yourself.”
I try my best every day to work on these strategies and support my friends and family, while ensuring I take care of my own well-being. If you’re reading this, it means that you care about people. We don’t need to be perfect. We can just do our best and treat every conversation as an opportunity to learn, grow, and most importantly — listen.