Always remember that others have problems too. At any given time the person next to you may be going through unimaginable hardship. Learn to be supportive in ways that truly help by listening closely and observing reactions. The below tips on how to interact with someone under serious strain or crisis are focused on what to avoid – because we so often mean well but say the wrong things. A person under severe stress can have many sensitive nerves, so saying less is better. Listen and take cues from the person.
Pointing out problems is rarely helpful. Books, websites, and people constantly tell us what is wrong with us. We know what is wrong. Life in the workforce is challenging. Work, family, bills, a million accounts to manage, driving everywhere, or paying a ton to live in an urban neighborhood. Often, the lifestyle does not leave enough time to care for oneself. Then when things go wrong, suddenly it is not manageable. It is not mysterious. Better than pointing out the problems is offering to help.Offering verbal solutions is rarely helpful. If the person asks to talk through a challenge with you to get your ideas, she may be open to hearing your proposed solutions. More often though, she has a deeper understanding of her options and constraints than you do. She does not need to be drained of more energy by explaining why your ideas are not the right answers.
The single best response to a friend, loved one or colleague in need is any variation of 1- acknowledging the pain and 2- offering to help in ways responsive to their needs (not your projection of what that may be).
“That stinks. Can I help? (..& if so, how?)”
“What you are going through sounds so tough. Is there anything I could do today that would support you?
Then really listen to the response. Bring takeout! Take her to a park and just hang out. Do not pepper her with questions, do not say it’ll be better soon, do not ask for the gory details for your own voyeurism. When a person is highly stressed, helping her enjoy life in the moment is one of the best possible ways to be supportive. Or if she says she needs space, ask whether there may be something you can do from afar.
Avoid saying: “You look so tired.”
She knows she is exhausted, and why. Pointing out how bad she looks is not helpful.
Try instead: “I hope things will get better for you. Anything I can do?”
Avoid pressuring her to do more than she can or what is healthy for her
Repeatedly saying she should go out late to the bars when she has already declined, perhaps because she needs adequate rest for her own needs or to take care of others, is not helpful. Insisting that she do things that might work for you, but not for her, may push her away.
Avoid lecturing her to do classic stress-relief activities she may not have time or money for
Instead of asking whether she has gone for a spa day lately, ask whether you can pick up anything at the grocery store on your way over.
Do not speculate
No one under strain wants to hear imaginary things. “I wonder if he is gay.” “Maybe he was cheating on you with that secretary.” “That company must really have it out for women.” “They will probably find a cure for that incurable cancer soon.” Painting a worse or unrealistic picture is not helpful. She is already dealing with the hard facts on the table.
Do not press for details and do not presume anything
Listen to what she wants to share. If you are staying at her home and she is upset, make it possible for her to get a few moments alone. Do not stare or intrude into her space. There are moments for hugs and moments for privacy.
Do not say extreme things about how hard things are for her
“What a nightmare!” “This is unbelievable.” She is doing her best to cope and find goodness where she can. Coloring it as horrible, even if true, does not convey hope or strength.
At the same time, do not make light of it
“This will blow over.” “At least you have good weather.” “This will pass soon.” It may not. Illness, divorce, unemployment, and other life “earthquakes” can have lasting consequences and domino effects on lives. She may be in for years of challenge and struggle.
Do not say: “I don’t know what to tell you.”
She is not asking you for the answer. She knows there are not any easy answers. She might just like you to come by to share a glass of wine or take a walk together.
Another classic response that can come across as insulting: “You should give yourself a break.”
If someone just shared a struggle with you-trying to lose weight, finish a personal project, overcome a hardship-she is not seeking a break. She is seeking to succeed at a goal that is important to her. By saying that, you may be dismissing her goal. What she hears might be: “I don’t think your goal is important enough to merit dedication and focus. Give up! You will not accomplish that anyway!” So try a different version of the above response: “Is there a way I can help you reach that goal?”
It is more natural to want to problem-solve on the spot, express outrage, and offer words that we believe can help. Brainstorming or commiserating may be appreciated some of the time. But more often, especially in extreme situations, asking what actions really help and heeding the response have a better impact on the person and your relationship.
Emily McDowell’s cards were a viral hit when launched for good reason: she nailed it on empathy- what and how to say it with humor and none of the usual words no one wants to hear. Her book goes into more depth on approach.