When everything is going wrong in your life, and you are in your darkest hour, the last thing you want to hear is, “Everything happens for a reason.” Or “God never gives you more than you can handle.” Or even, “Things aren’t falling apart, they’re falling together.”
While these well-intentioned expressions of comfort are all true, it’s annoying for those who are in the midst of feeling down to be blanketed with words from a self-help chapter, even if it’s something that they believe.
To be there for someone in their time of suffering and seeking comfort is a great privilege. Rising to that occasion is an honor. My work is built around helping others and the rewards are soul stirring.
Yet for all of our education and life experience, giving support is something not all of us are comfortable doing. It’s an intimacy that requires a tenderness of spirit and understanding.
Sometimes we don’t know what to say when someone is going through something challenging and it’s awkward.
Comforting someone the wrong way can sometimes make things worse.
Here are some ways that you can succeed:
>> Purely, actively and mindfully listen: Don’t try to offer advice or guidance without being asked. The most important thing you can do at first is to listen. Don’t try to think of a solution for them. Listen to understand, not to respond.
>> Reflectively respond: Repeat what they said to you, but do so in your own words. This will help to not only validate what they are feeling, but to clarify if you understand where they are coming from.
>> Validate everything: Don’t try to talk them into seeing things differently. Say things like, “My goodness, that is so hard.” Or, “I totally understand why you feel this way.” Or “I feel your pain.”
>> Keep your focus on them: It’s tempting to shift the conversation to your own experience to help validate theirs, but don’t do that right away. Keep the focus on them with something like, “I’m sorry you’re going through this. I know it must be so difficult. I’m here for you.”
When someone says they have given up hope, instead of saying “No, you can’t do that!” respond with, “I understand. Even though you’ve given up, I want you to know that I haven’t, and I will carry that hope for you. I’m here for you.”
A century ago, we lived much closer to suffering. It was a smaller world with less compartmentalization. Our loved ones died at home. Grown kids lived closer to their family.
There weren’t as many institutions to care for the poor and homeless. You knew your neighbors, and you were likely a part of their lives.
So much of comforting comes through personal touch, physical presence and the human voice, whether in the form of a smile or when your eyes that meet across a room.
When giving comfort, the personal touch is what is most important. Resist the urge to send a quick email or click an emoji and really be present for a friend in need.
Alice Inoue is the founder of Happiness U. Visit yourhappinessu.com.