PHOTO: UNSPLASH/NICK WRIGHT
People don’t always need advice, solutions, comparisons or smart comments when talking about their problems.
It takes a lot of courage for someone to open up about what they might be going through in life. Some people never tell anyone what happened out of fear of being judged and blamed for it, while others fear being told that what they’ve been through isn’t ‘that bad’ and they should suck it up. If someone does decide to confide in you and share their problems, then you want to honour that and be as supportive as possible, saying the ‘right’ things. But sometimes, that can be hard, and an innocent suggestion can backfire as being insensitive, causing more hurt instead.
Offer simple listening, empathy and support on their terms instead of making the following potentially hurtful statements:
1. “Everything happens for a reason”
It’s easy to fall back on well-worn platitudes when you’re at a loss for words, but telling someone going through pain and suffering that it happened for a deeper reason we don’t know yet – seems very cold. It’s not your place to try to make sense of their suffering, so don’t say something that gives you more comfort as a listener, rather than to them as a sufferer.
2. “I went through the same thing too”
Sometimes we try and relate to someone in pain by meeting them on their level and talking about our own experiences. But the first conversation in which they are opening up to you is usually not the right time to be empathetic and share your story, because it can look like you’re trying to compete. Instead, it’s more helpful to the other person to simply listen to them and let them know that you are there for them. When someone is telling you their story, resist the urge to bring yourself into it immediately and save it for a future conversation. Otherwise you might make the other person feel like you aren’t really listening to them anyway, and that they have switched from receiving care to giving it. However, if you still think that sharing a similar story right now might actually be more beneficial, as for permission first, keep it brief, and then go back to the person to continue sharing their problems.
3. “That happened to you because you did or didn’t...”
More often than not, when facing a problem, people already know what they did wrong that ended them in that particular situation. It doesn’t really help to “victim-blame,” and emphasise that if they had done things differently, they wouldn’t be in the mess that they are in right now. Just listening and empathising to support someone is the best thing you can do to help, rather than making them feel worse by confirming that they are a victim of their own doing.
4. “Don’t be so emotional. You’re making a mountain of a mole hill”
You haven’t gone through what the other person had to, so you have no right to minimise their feelings of pain and suffering, even if the whole thing seems very trivial to you. Everyone experiences pain differently, and can get over emotional and less logical when going through tough situations, but that doesn’t give us a right to judge or criticise them. Instead of suggesting their pain isn’t that real and that they should ‘suck it up’, support them by letting them go through all the emotions that they feel and let them get it all out so that it would be much easier for them to process logically things later.
5. “It could have been worse”
While your intent might be in helping someone find some perspective or the silver lining to what happened to them, these words can potentially minimise the very real suffering this person has endured, indirectly causing more hurt and pain in the process. By telling the other person that things could be much worse, you’re effectively taking away their need for their pain to be recognised and acknowledged as you’re implying that they should actually be grateful for how things turned out, irrespective of their suffering.
6. “It’s easy to fix this”
When someone is confiding in you, they most likely want to be comforted and understood by someone they trust and feel safe with. Your job is to listen to them and take them seriously, rather than fix the problem at this point. Fixing the problem can come later. There is a certain empowerment that comes in being heard, as it makes the other person feel as though what they are going through matters, and that THEY matter. Unless the person specifically asks for a solution at that time, keep your solutions to yourself for the moment.