What to Say When Someone is In Crisis: PART ONE

April 29, 2013
Explore how you can both comfort someone who is going through a crisis and also find support for your own feelings about this trauma or tragedy.

Model of what to say when someone is in crisis In my newsletter of April 15, I explained the idea behind this circle, although I didn’t include the circle itself, and suggested you visit the Los Angeles Times op-ed piece of April 7, 2013, titled How not to say the wrong thing.” I especially wanted you to check out the comments, which I found most interesting and informative.

In the newsletter I didn’t want to give a long explanation of my response to the circle, since I assumed most people only skim newsletters. However, after giving the topic more thought, I’ve come up with three posts on the topic. I will continue this discussion on May 2 and on May 6.

Preventing Kvetching

In the article, Susan Silk, a clinical psychologist, and Barry Goldman, author of The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators, described a series of rings to help people learn how to comfort a person who is in “medical, legal, even existential” crisis. At the same time, the theory gives those who are upset by the “aggrieved or afflicted” individual’s situation to complain about how the problem affects them.

While I think the general idea is helpful, I’m not sure that I would delineate the circles the same way the authors did. Except for being extra sensitive to the person going through a rough time — and not telling them that their illness is a problem for you — I don’t think the boundaries between groups of people are quite as rigid as they appear.

Nevertheless, here is basically how the “Comfort IN! Dump OUT!” circle works:

  • Draw a circle. In this center ring put the name of the person dealing with a current trauma.
  • Next, draw a larger circle around the first one and in that ring put the name of the person or persons next closest to the trauma. Spouse, parents, siblings, etc.
  • In each larger ring put the next closest people, with intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones.
  • At the outer ring are the “lookie loos” who are attracted to the crisis but have no direct involvement with the one in the center.

With this circle the authors hope to prevent “kvetching” — a Yiddish term meaning to endlessly whine or complain — that does no good to a person already under stress. So the circles define the “Kvetching Order.” In other words, the person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?”

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings, which protects the person going through a crisis.

As I see it, I think the circle theory can help to not only prevent a lot of complaining by people who are not directly affected by the trauma or crisis. Even more, it can prevent gossiping by people who may share things the person in the center circle may want to keep private.

In other words, when you have a close friend or relative who is going through a terrible time, “you may want to scream or cry or complain about how shocked you are or how icky you feel. You may want to whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately.” That’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.

Protecting Yourself Against Emotional Intruders

A few days after the newsletter went out, I received an email from someone who has been through this experience and I asked her if I might use her letter as an example. She gave me permission and I offer it here as a good illustration of how the circle can work.

I am in the center of the center circle. When I learned that my body was hosting some unhealthy stuff that had the potential to be pretty damned fatal, I insulated myself and chose carefully who I thought could handle the news and not say any of the 1001 insensitive phrases that would further quash my spirit. One person replied, “Oh, they’ll likely do a Whipple procedure, with no words of empathy. With that I knew I’d made the right choice when I did not feed her further information as it would be just another conversational topic to her at the beauty shop, or online.

I also told anyone I shared with, that I would not be discussing it publicly on FB as I didn’t want to become the topic of anything but encouraging positive phrases. While I am sure some of my news has been leaked by those I trust to others, I also trust and have found that the responses I am getting are only that of hope, uplifting information and pure love.  Until one is in this position, it is unlikely that one can truly engage on the level that someone undergoing the experience can welcome. It is not my place to suffer fools as I conserve my energy in healing myself.  I like the exercise as I’m a visual learner.

To avoid visitors who plop down to talk about what happened when “Aunt Mary had the same thing” and will not shut up, I didn’t have many visitors welcomed. In fact, I even switched rooms a couple of times when the person in the next bed had visitors who were annoying me.

Future Posts on This Topic:

Thursday, May 2:

We All Respond Differently to Someone in Crisis:
How to Support a Friend in Need

Monday, May 6,

Being in the Center of the Circle:
When the Person in Crisis Won’t Accept Support From You

4 thoughts on “What to Say When Someone is In Crisis: PART ONE

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