Book update: It is still made of words and growing wordier. It is doing this slowly because I am realizing it needs different words in other places, too, and I’m adding those as I realize they’re not there.
Boom. Done. Now let’s talk about a real thing and stop worrying about who’s a year over her due date.
Today I’d like to talk about comforting people, advice, and how you shouldn’t do it.
There are lots and lots of ways to comfort people. Validation, allowing them to vent, offering solutions, mirroring their response…
Basically the only thing you should not do is offer blind optimism. I don’t care if everything happens for a reason, right now my pizza bagels all burned and I never got to eat one. Yes, I’m sure I’ll survive having missed the opportunity to go see Hamilton at a reasonable price, but right now I’ve just learned that someone sold the tickets out from under my nose. Platitudes are not there to help the person who is upset, they’re for the person being upset at. They are what we say when we are uncomfortable and don’t know how to respond. And we need to cut it out. Friendship isn’t about being comfortable with each other–I’m perfectly comfortable talking about pizza bagels and Hamilton with utter strangers. Friendship is being willing to be uncomfortable together.
Sometimes it’s obvious what your person needs. They may helpfully start with “I’M SO MAD. BE MAD WITH ME,” and then you know now is for being mad. But most of the time they just say “THE PIZZA BAGELS!!!!!” and it is reasonable to be completely unsure how this rates, crisis-wise.
I find, when I’m not sure what to do and someone else around me is very sure we ought to be doing something, the best course of action is to ask them.
It’s really that easy. Ask, and then believe them. Perhaps you’ll get to the point where you can make an assumption based on previous experiences, perhaps not. I’ve done a lot of comforting, and needed quite a bit. I’d rather be asked every time. “Cheer up” has never once been what I needed.
We also have ways we like to be comforted that may not work for other people. One common thing we like to do, because we hate to see people suffer, is offer solutions a.k.a. advice.
I mean look at that. You know the first person means well. But if you’ve reached the age of maturity and don’t know how body heat works, likely you’re not in a position where a few people on the internet are going to make it better. Otherwise, you can be assumed to know basic life skills and have had some access to Google.
The second person is attempting to fix both the sad and the angry at Person One with humor, which is totally a valid response if you happen to know it’s appreciated. I hope.
Advice wants to be given in the spirit of concern and active listening, but often it is insulting, minimizing, or unhelpful. Most often, when I say something isn’t going well and I get advice, the majority of the conversation is spent convincing them this is a real problem that routine solutions have not been able to fix. And then I have two problems: the first one, and now you.
Sometimes, the effin’ thing’s broken and fixing it isn’t something we have the power to do right now. Sometimes, we just got a huge shock to our system and need a second to adapt to new information before we try to fix things. So, my advice? Wait til someone asks for your advice. You’ll know, because it will end in some sort of inquisitive statement.
Another response I see a lot is the question.
“Did you go to the doctor?”
“Did you get medicine?”
“Did you take it?”
“Is it working?”
“Well, right now I have a headache, so I’d say no.”
Questions are fine in an intimate context–your spouse, your kid, a close friend in a private setting. Asking as a member of the general populace for updates when you want them is again, an attempt to assuage your feelings, not to help the other person. You are concerned and want not to feel that way. Understandable, but it’s also exhausting to have a problem and have to run your own press conference in one-on-one meetings every time something happens. If you’re really concerned and aren’t on the list of first people to be contacted, try contacting someone you know to be closer with the upset person first. This idea is called “support in, vent out.” The person having a tough time should only get the support they need. This could be an offer to make quesadillas if the pizza bagels are all gone. It could be telling people about the new cancer updates for the person in treatment. The sick and/or hungry person doesn’t need to worry about comforting you, or what you need to deal with this issue. They just need help. You can freak out at someone else further from person having a tough time. Example: the store doesn’t have the shoes I want. I complain to my spouse who comforts me. He complains to his sister who comforts him and me. She complains to her friends who comfort her. That way, everyone is on the same page re: the sorrowful shoe situation, and I don’t have to explain to my sister in law’s friend’s cousin about how the website said it was in stock but it wasn’t.
Instead of advice or grilling them like this is a bad cop show, you can try these forms of comfort instead:
This is affirming to the person in need that their responses are reasonable.
“That really sucks, I’d be mad, too.”
“I can’t believe they said that, that sounds really passive aggressive to me.”
“You are not crazy. You researched it first on the internet and believed them about the shoes. This is what supply management systems are designed for.”
This is where you share in their pain.
“No one talks to my friend like that!”
“Ohhh, I’m so sorry, I’m so sad to hear that.”
“THEY ARE THE BURR TO YOUR HAMILTON!”
You just listen and say things that show you really heard them.
“That really sucks.”
“It sounds like you had a tough day.”
“I can’t believe it burned every single pizza bagel. That’s tragic.”
It’s not quite validation, though it has a similar impact. It says that you hear what they are saying and agree that they have the right to be upset about it. Where validation says “it’s okay to feel” this says “I believe what you feel.”
When used appropriately, distracting people can be great. Humor, cute cat videos, affirmations of love and support, these are sometimes all we can do to say we love them and know things are tough.
Do something for them. “Let me know if I can help” is fine as a form of listening, but it’s actually pretty useless in reality. I have had 2 people outside of my immediate family tell me what they need help with in my entire life, and they were embarrassed about it. Instead of offering, do something. If you’re near their pharmacy, tell them and ask if they have anything you can pick up since you’re there. Go over and take out the trash. Order them delivery. Send them flowers. Offer a hug. Organize an outing. Sit with them in the doctor’s office. Do something. Don’t ask. Don’t wait for people to get over their pride. Pitch in. This is of course for people you’re closer with, but if you really want to help someone on the fringe of your social group, approach someone in their inner circle. Those people are much more likely to know what you can do to help and to be fine asking for it.
In summation, I highly suggest asking what you can do and then trying something other than pleasantries, minimizing statements, or offering solutions (unless they want them!).
It is important to know though that sometimes these aren’t enough and sometimes they won’t work. But for most things, this might be a great place to start. Join us next week for a separate post on being there for people who are toxic, taxing, or totally beyond your skills to heal.