Life is filled with both blessings and challenges. One of the aspects I love about our clinic is that we understand our patients have more going on in their lives than just chronic health conditions or sudden illnesses. Our patients also navigate financial struggles, family dynamics, work stresses, difficult living situations, mental health concerns, etc.
My guess is that you also have struggles, as do the important people in your life. We have all had at least one experience where you shared about a problem with someone, and their response was less than helpful. In fact, a negative or judgmental response can lead a person to shut down and to fear opening up and sharing again. It is important to keep in mind that first responses can leave a lasting impact on the person sharing.
Here are a few tips for having an empathetic and compassionate response when someone shares with you about a challenge they are facing:
1. Validate a person’s courage to speak up.
Validating courage is not the same as validating poor choices or actions. For example, if someone opened up to you about an excessive drinking problem, you could say, “That took a lot of courage for you to be honest with me about how much you are drinking and how it is effecting your life.” That does not mean that you are endorsing excessive drinking, it is just the first words out of your mouth are validating that it takes courage to be vulnerable and honest, instead of meeting them with a critical statement about addiction.
2. Recognize the person most likely has shame and negative self-talk about this issue.
This is certainly not to mean that every person who has a problem acknowledges it; denial can be a powerful force. However, in my experience, by the time that someone sits down with you and is ready to talk about an issue, they realize that there is a concern. They may not acknowledge the full impact it has or the vastness of the issue, but there is a certain level of common ground that there is a concern.
Assuming that the person acknowledges the problem, you can also assume that they already have some negative self-talk and shame about it too. This is another reason that our first comments should not be judgmental and critical. We want individuals to feel a sense of hope about the future and their ability to change a difficult situation, not feel beaten down in defeat by critical words.
3. Listening to a person’s story can help you to understand how someone arrived at the circumstances they are in.
I will always remember the patient who came in to discuss a problem with me. I jumped into “fix it” mode and wanted to get started on some steps to solving the problem right away. He politely said, “Thank you for being willing to help me, but before you do, I need to tell you my story. I want you to know how I got here.”
Sometimes you won’t agree with choices someone is making. Perhaps in your heart of hearts the old adage “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it” seems fitting. However, when you get to know someone, you see them for more than just the problem at hand.
For example, we had a patient struggling with addiction. She had made a series of choices that were not positive. Yet, when I heard her speak of her childhood and the true atrocities she experienced, I understood why ever fiber of her being would desire to escape the pain she experienced (both physical and mental) for most of her life. Drugs were that escape for her. I never told her that it was ok that she was addicted. I never encouraged the drug use. But getting to hear more about her helped me to understand how she had gotten to the level of addiction and to realize that she needed not only substance abuse treatment, but also counseling to help with the pain of her childhood to get sober.
4. Ask open ended questions to learn more.
I have a teenage son. I learned that if I ask, “How was your day at school?” the response will be “fine” or some other one word statement. If I ask an open ended question like “What was the most challenging part of your day?” or “What was the best part of your day?” I can get at least a few sentences. Open ended questions cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no.” They are questions that start with “how, what, who, or when” and are designed to get people talking.
Here are a few examples of open-ended questions that can help start the conversation:
- What would you say is the trigger for abuse in your home?
- When your doctor told you that you were having a miscarriage, how did you feel in that moment?
- Who is someone you feel comfortable reaching out to when you are experiencing suicidal thoughts?
Asking open ended questions not only gives you more information, it also lets the person know that you are listening and are ok with them opening up.
5. Watch your nonverbals and tone.
We’ve all heard the saying “actions speak louder than words.” If you say with your mouth that you care, but you regularly glance at the clock with pursed lips and your arms across your chest, you say otherwise with your body language. Keep your legs uncrossed. You may even lean in a bit towards the person to show engaged body posture. If you have a time constraint, set that boundary in the beginning. That way you don’t have to stress and check your watch over and over again. If you are feeling irritated or wondering if a comment would be appropriate to make, give yourself a moment to take a deep breath and think it over before speaking so that you can keep your tone in check.
6. Remind the person they are not the only one to have faced this issue.
The more clinical term for this is “normalization.” A person is not the only one to have ever had thoughts of self-harm. The couple is not the only one to feel at the end of their rope and as if there is no hope for their marriage. A person with cancer is not the first one to ask God why they had to get sick.
I believe that the lie of “being the only one” keeps people stuck. Feeling like no one else knows what you are going through is an incredibly lonely and hopeless place to be. People facing tough challenges need to be reminded that others have been right where they are and gotten through it. It helps the person feel normal for struggling and inspires hope that things can get better, because they have improved for others in their situation.
7. Refer on to a professional, but follow-up to show you care.
There are many professionals in our community who are willing to help. You do not have to become everyone’s problem-solver. However, if you refer someone to a professional, it is always good to check in on them. That way they know that you care, even if the issue they are facing is beyond the scope of what you can personally help with. It also helps to make sure that the person actually connected with the referral.
We all need someone to lean on in difficult times. In a world where discord is common, may we make a small difference in the lives of those who open up to us by showing kindness, empathy and compassion.
I’ll leave you with the following video from Brené Brown, a renowned expert on the topic of mental health. In it, she breaks down the differences between empathy and sympathy. Embracing empathy as a tool to drive connection can make all the difference in the world to a person you are trying to help.