The other day, I had the opportunity to talk to one of my kids about her disappointing day at school. She told me about friends who made plans without her, a test she had gotten a low grade on. Her general summary was that the day was a “total bummer”.
I felt that familiar tug many of us experience when trying to help someone else – how much do I acknowledge the unhappiness? When is it best to provide reminders that things will be much better tomorrow? Should we just go out for ice cream and let the tough times pass? There is no simple equation that tells us an exact ratio of acknowledgment to reassurance to hot fudge sundae. Finding a good balance of listening, offering positive suggestions and providing distractions can make it a little easier to get through challenging times.
We all need to express feelings to another person, and hopefully have those feelings validated. In the conversation with my struggling child, I started lobbing ideas her way in an effort to improve her mood quickly. “Maybe you can do extra credit to bring your grades up.” “How about inviting some different friends over this weekend?” I was not really hearing what she was saying, which was so much more than these surface woes. She was struggling with insecurity, self-doubt, and nervousness as she faced some of the perils of adolescence. Until I acknowledged her struggles and invited her to tell me about the feelings underneath, she was stuck trying to make herself heard and no suggestion I offered would make any difference.
Sometimes, when we try to help another person, we might acknowledge past the point of helpfulness. My friend recently struggled with feeling overwhelmed at work. Her company had undergone major restructuring and she was asked to absorb many of the responsibilities from positions that had been eliminated. Fresh off my solution-focused interaction with my 12-year-old, I was ready for unlimited talking. I asked for examples, summarized what I heard, agreed that it seemed to be more than one person could handle. I may have even pointed out things that had not yet occurred to her. This is a classic case of perfectly good intentions with perfectly bad results. I failed to anticipate that voicing so many dreadful details would actually make my friend feel worse rather than better.
If I paid more attention to my friend’s rising voice, increasingly anxious tone and slumped shoulders, I may have realized that she had stopped venting and was starting to panic. There comes a time to summarize what you have heard and reassure that although the answers may not be visible right away, you know hope still exists. At a certain point sharing extra details does not make a painful point any more valid. Instead, it saps energy we can use toward actions to try and make things better.
We all bring our own biases, desires, even personal judgments into our interactions with other people. A few weeks ago, my 91-year-old father suffered a small stroke. When my siblings and I visited him in the hospital, he expressed some feelings of hopelessness as he faced this daunting recovery. At his age, he felt overwhelmed at the prospect of physical and speech therapy with no guarantees as to how much strength and independence he would recover. He needed to know we were trying to understand that he felt weary and fearful of the uncertain road ahead. Although we wanted him to be more positive, and sometimes it was difficult to listen patiently, we had to let him know we heard how depressed he felt. We did our best to acknowledge his struggles, and he responded a little better to our encouragement to work hard in therapies. We try our best to first listen and acknowledge, then offer encouragement. When the opportunities arise, it never hurts to throw in a few diversions, such as current events talk or a meal brought in from a restaurant to take a break from the stress.
Keep in mind the importance of acknowledgment, encouragement and distractions. There might not be a way to determine the perfect proportion of each, but an openness to adjust those amounts when needed can make change for the better feel much more possible.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.