Talking to people who are going through tough times

This post is something I've been meaning to write for years; I'm finally writing it as a starting point/background for the next couple of posts I'm planning to write.

I've noticed that when someone is grieving, other people who talk to the grieving person often talk entirely about themselves.

For example, my friend Annie's mother died unexpectedly a couple of years ago. While Annie was performing the emotionally difficult task of going through her mother's apartment, a neighbor stopped by. The neighbor was distraught, but it quickly became clear that she wasn't there to talk about Annie's mother; she was there to recount her own life story, including (iIrc) the death of her husband some decades earlier. My vague memory is that the neighbor spent about twenty minutes telling us that story, sobbing for much of that time, without ever asking Annie a single question or expressing any sympathy. The neighbor's pain at the loss of her husband was real, and there's nothing wrong with that—but her pain didn't have anything to do with what Annie was going through, and the neighbor should not have chosen to vent her pain in Annie's direction. The neighbor should've found someone else to talk to.

The monologue-about-one's-own-life happens in other contexts, too, of course; people sometimes just get very focused on their own lives. But it's particularly unfortunate when one person is going through a difficult time, and other people want to make the situation all about them.

I posted a link a while ago to an article by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman about what they call the “ring theory of kvetching”: how not to say the wrong thing to someone who's grieving or dealing with difficulties. The general idea is that when you're interacting with people who are closer to the center of the problem than you are, you should focus on giving comfort to them; if you need to complain or talk about how you're feeling, you can do that by talking to people who are further from the center than you are. For example, if someone is grieving a loss, then when you talk to them, focus on them; don't make it about you.

(Unless they explicitly tell you they would rather you talk about yourself, of course. But even then, check in with them now and then; they may want you to focus on them occasionally even if not at all times.)

I can't speak for anyone else, but for me, it's very tempting to make any given situation all about me. So the ring theory is a useful paradigm, a good way to remind myself to pause every now and then and tell myself, “It's not about you.”

One specific line from the ring theory article I would take a little further than they took it: They wrote, “If you're going to open your mouth [when talking to someone in an inner ring], ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support.” I totally agree with that, but I would also go further: I'd say to start by thinking about what that particular person will find comforting and supportive. Because even when people do try to follow the general idea of the ring theory, they often say things that they would find comforting and supportive but that the person they're talking to, who may have a different worldview, may find upsetting and unpleasant.

(I've seen this issue become especially prominent across religious divides. For example, if an atheist posts a note saying “my father is dying and I'm very sad and upset,” it's probably not a good idea to reply “It's all according to God's plan.” And if a religious person posts a note saying, “my father is dying; please keep us in your prayers,” then it's probably not the ideal time to suggest that religion is evil. In either direction, it's generally not too hard to find something you can say that they might find comforting and that doesn't conflict with your own beliefs, like “I'm so sorry” or “I'm thinking of you.”)

I think part of what's going on in these situations is that many of us don't have good models for what to say to someone who's grieving or dealing with other difficult stuff, nor much experience to fall back on. We don't want to say the wrong thing, but we're not necessarily sure what the wrong thing is.

But I've been noticing lately that Facebook seems to actually be helping with that, because there are often models for what to say right there in front of you. I'm seeing a lot of people doing a good job of this lately, at least by my standards: saying sympathetic and caring things, and focusing on the person who's experiencing the difficulty rather than on themselves. When I'm one of the people commenting, I worry sometimes about repeating the same phrasing someone else has already used in a comment; but then I remind myself that the point is not to come up with some unique and brilliant and clever thing to say; the point is to express sympathy to someone who could use some.

Mention of Facebook leads into my next topic, so I think I'll stop here.

I finished writing this post a week ago, but I've been holding off on posting it 'til the rest of the posts in this series were ready. But I've been having a hard time making the next one coherent. So I'll just post this one for now, with more to follow sometime soonish.

One Response to “Talking to people who are going through tough times”

  1. Jed

    See also the Facebook version of this post, where I added a couple of further thoughts, which I’m now reposting here:

    I think that saying something like “I had an experience like that too” can be a valid approach, but in my experience, unfortunately, much of the time when people start out by saying something along those lines, what they really mean is “your situation reminds me vaguely of something mostly unrelated, which I’m now going to tell you about at great length.” Or sometimes “I had an experience once that yours kind of reminds me of, and here’s what I did, so I feel very strongly that that’s the only reasonable thing to do, and it’s what you should do too.”

    I don’t mean to be across-the-board critical of that general approach. If the person you’re talking to is looking for advice or insight into their situation, then “here’s a similar/related situation” can sometimes be really useful. I tell that kind of story all the time, usually by saying something along the lines of “A friend of mine went through that, and here’s what it was like for them.” But imo, that’s only a good idea if you’re sure that the person you’re talking to wants to hear about it.

    I think it’s important to keep in mind that a lot of the time, people who are in distressing situations don’t want advice, and they don’t want insight; they want sympathy and comfort and someone who’ll listen to them. Or they want practical help, like food and housecleaning and rides to places.

    Another variant that can work really well is “Oh, man, I’ve been through something similar, and that’s really rough.” In other words, expressing sympathy by means of making clear (briefly) that you know what it’s like. (Though this only works if they agree with you that the thing you’ve been through is analogous. If you say “My father is dying” and I say “Oh, yeah, I stubbed my toe once so I know what you’re going through,” that’s unlikely to be helpful.) Sometimes just hearing that you’re not alone, that others have been there too, can help a lot. (I’ve been in situations where that’s kind of backfired, because if someone says “The awfulness of my pain is unique in the universe!” and I say “Well, I’ve been there too,” then I’m undermining what they’re feeling. Still, I think if done carefully and kindly, the “I’ve had a similar experience and yeah, it really hurts” approach is more likely to help than not.)

    But I think the word “briefly” is key in my last paragraph above; if I spend more than a few seconds talking about my similar experience, then it’s pretty likely that I’m inappropriately changing the focus to be on me rather than on them.

    I think this comes back to what I said in part of my post: not only should you be sending comfort inward, you should be sure that that comfort takes a form that’s actually comforting. There may be many possible forms of comforting, but the focus should be on what the person you’re comforting wants, rather than on what you want.


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