What to Say When Someone is In Crisis: PART TWO

May 2, 2013
Explore how people have different ways of supporting others and different responses to being supported and how that can help or hinder better relationships.

Model of what to say when someone is in crisisIn the post of April 29, I discussed an article from the Los Angeles Times called “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing” when a friend is dealing with a difficult situation.

In this second part of my response to the ideas of the “Comfort In, Dump Out” circle, I make some observations on why some people are better than others at knowing what to say or do when a friend is going through a crisis — and a few suggestions to help if you are unsure how to help.

We All Respond Differently to Someone in Crisis

Here are a few reasons — in no particular order of importance — why we are different in the way we respond to another person who is going through a crisis.

  1. Some people were raised by caring, nurturing parents who taught them how to be compassionate. With healthy egos, these people know, almost intuitively, how to respond when someone needs help.
  2. At the other extreme are people whose parents didn’t teach them compassion, but stressed the importance of success. Regard for others was down the list of skills they learned. Life may need to teach them a few lessons before they can generously support others without expecting something in return.
  3. We’ve all known people who never think before they speak and don’t seem to understand that words can have an impact they don’t intend. Then, when they discover they have offended someone, it is easy for them to place the blame on the other person for being “too sensitive.”
  4. There are those who are very hard on themselves when they make a mistake and are so afraid of saying the “wrong” thing that they offend by not saying anything at all.
  5. Similarly, those who were taught that there is always a “right” thing to say will take a very long time looking at get-well cards to find the “perfect” one. They may be disappointed if the friend doesn’t exclaim over their choice.
  6. We all have a “kvetcher” in our circle of friends and family; someone who loves to complain. The more trauma they can find to respond to (both real and imagined), the better they feel. The more they can “identify” with a victim — even though the other person is not as unhappy as they assume she is — the better they feel. Suggesting they complain to those who are less involved in the crisis would go right over their heads. They feed on the pain of others.
  7. In a similar vein, there are those who love to gossip. It makes them feel important and the more information they have to share about someone, the better. When they can get “inside” information about the person who is suffering, they think their value rises.
  8. Then there are extroverts and introverts. Extroverts draw their energy from connecting with others. When someone is in crisis, they want to respond immediately and assume the other person wants their help the way they want to give it. They often offer advice that isn’t wanted or appreciated as soon as they want to give it. They can be very helpful, but can also be exhausting.
  9. Introverts, on the other hand, can have difficulty expressing themselves when in intense situations. Feelings are not their forte, and since feelings are often aroused in crises, they are more likely to step back, or say very little, at least at first. Nevertheless, they can convey their support if they are willing to simply say, “I’m thinking of you.”

How to Support a Friend in Need

If you have often supported friends in need, you probably don’t give much thought to the “how” or “why” of your help. However, if you are unsure what you can do and want to learn how to best help a person in the circle, here are some suggestions.

  1. First of all, whatever you say or do, ask yourself this question, “Will it help or hurt the person who is going through a difficult time?” If your words come from love and caring, you are more likely to have a positive impact and be less likely to be misunderstood.
  2. Use whatever skills of good listening you have. Be as kind and as encouraging as possible. Try your best to comfort in the way you know how and don’t worry that you’ll say the wrong thing. A simple, “I am sorry you are having a tough time. I am here for you,” can work wonders.
  3. If your friend cries and you are uncomfortable with emotions, take a deep breath and fill yourself with love. Imagine the love flowing out of you and into the core of the other person.
  4. Everyone has a story in which they organize their thoughts about their experiences. Listen to her story without judgment, even if she repeats the story many times. Repeating the story may help her make sense of what has happened. For others, telling the story once to a receptive, caring listener is all they need. Just listen. Don’t analyze.
  5. If a person tells you something related to the crisis, ask whether you can share the information. If she says, no, then don’t do it! Not even to those whom you trust! In fact, you will do best to err on the side of not sharing something unless you are very clear the person wants others to know about it.
  6. Phone perhaps twice a week just to let them know someone is thinking of them. If you aren’t sure whether that would be too much, ask whether the person would appreciate a call. You don’t want to put too much pressure on the person to talk.
  7. If there is a piece of advice you think the other person can use, first ask whether she would like to hear it. If she says “no,” shut up. If she says “yes”— but from the tone of her voice you can tell she isn’t keen about hearing one more thing people think she “ought” to do — make the advice very short.
  8. Here are a few things not to say: “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” (Since the person in crisis is handling things as well as he can, he may conclude that he should work even harder.) If he has lost someone very dear to him, don’t say that “God needs her more than you do.” Don’t say, “No one ever said that life was fair.” Don’t say, “Let me tell you about someone who is worse off than you are.”
  9. Avoid saying, “I’ve been there!” You haven’t. Even if you have had the same disease or have experienced the same tragedy that your friend has, you are a different person and have reacted in a way that was specific for you. Don’t make assumptions that you know what she is going through.
  10. Let her feel sorry for herself. She has a right to be sorry that she has to go through what she is going through. By not wanting others to complain about their lot in life, you are saying, essentially, “Don’t upset me with your upset. Get over it so I don’t have to watch you suffer when there is nothing I can do about it. You are making me unhappy.”
  11. Offer whatever practical help you can. Arranging for meals is almost always appreciated. Taking down the holiday lights. Picking up the dry cleaning. Taking the children to the park or a movie can give her a little quiet.
  12. Give her time. Allow her to walk through her grief at her own pace and to make the adjustments she needs to make to what may be the “new normal.” Do not rush her or make her feel she is not recovering quickly enough or in the “right” way. Encourage any progress your friend is making but don’t expect her to work harder. She is doing the best she can.
  13. If she gets mad at what you say, apologize and let her vent. If you love her, it’s all you can do. On the other hand, if it is her pattern to run over people, you do not need to be a doormat. Hold her with love in your heart and keep your distance.

When No Words Seem Adequate

At one time or another, we have all been guilty of not knowing what to say. Then we miss the chance to help someone who could use the support of just a short visit, or a pat on the arm.

The following story illustrates the power of reaching out to someone in pain even when you don’t know what to say, even when the words are not elegantly expressed. This came from a reader:

I want to tell you of a time when a tragic and odd event happened, as a woman’s husband had left the St. Louis area to travel to Georgia, where his employment was. News came that he was missing after the death of the young Asian woman who signed his paychecks, and he did not become visible back home. It came out that he went into the unoccupied house next to his own, where he then took his own life.

I knew the wife only because we had golfed together and one day I had run her home. No connection beyond that, but as I thought of what she must be going thru, yet not knowing her well enough to phone, I sent her a note saying,

I am hearing some news that is incredibly painful. I pray it is not true, but if it is, I want you to know I am thinking of you and am available if you want to talk.

A week or so later, I got a note from her saying,

On a day that has been another day of this nightmare, I walked to the mailbox with TV trucks and news crews all around my home. It was the longest day of my life, but the one gift of doing so was that your note was in there. You have no idea what it meant to me as everyone is shunning me and I have so few friends in this area.

It was a note I treasure to this day, along with some of Marlo Thomas’ books, including What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say series. It is possible to acknowledge someone’s distress even if the words are not graceful.

Be sure to read the next and last post on this topic on Monday, May 6, Being in the Center of the Circle: When the Person in Crisis Won’t Accept Support From You.


Did you enjoy this post?
Here are a some related posts from this blog, and articles from the Support4Change website:


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