By Dr. Annie Chu
Why this topic? Echoing with recent article “How Do You Love?”, we do tend to treat others in a way that feels good and convenient to ourselves. No matter how many “Communication Skills for Dummies” are being published, we rarely say or do the right thing to others especially when the situations demand us to do so.
Witnessing negative emotions, for example extreme sadness, despair and hopelessness make us feel uncomfortable. I am not saying people are not kind and compassionate in general, but very often we just want to see someone switches from a crying madness to a smiley face as soon as possible, be it a crying kid or a sobbing adult, without knowing that it is the most uncompassionate thing to do.
I have a chance to give a talk years ago on the topic of “Effective Communication of Compassion”. I remember showing some photos of a sobbing person looking obviously sad, and asked the attendees what would they say (the first phrase that came to their minds) imagining that person was someone they knew. Popular responses were “What happened? Please don’t cry!”, “Please calm down first and let me know what happened.”. And when they were asked to write down the most common phrases they tend to say to comfort someone in distress, “Just take it easy”, “It may not be as bad as you think”, “Don’t worry, you can get through this!”. We are so accustomed to these socially-accepted responses we usually use them like a knee-jerk reaction. However, from the point of view of the recipient, are those words really providing comfort?
From my experience dealing with cancer patients with prolonged emotional distress or patients with depression, one of the triggers of their sense of self-deprecation actually come from things being said by their closed ones when they are already “down in the dumps”. They often share with me how they really perceive these responses.
What Have Been Said
What Have Been Perceived
-Shh…Don’t cry please
-Don’t cry , at least not in front of me
-I cannot handle your meltdown
-Calm down first, there’s no need to cry, we can talk
-I don’t think you have experienced anything that is worth your tears
-I cannot deal with your tears
-You are looking at things too negatively again. -Just Take it Easy. It may not be as bad as you think
-You are exaggerating AGAIN
-Don’t worry, you will find a way!
-You can and should be able to fix it yourself
Sometimes when situations are tough and we really do not have much to offer, try one thing. Don’t jump straight to trying to give someone a solution. Instead, offer your presence, a pat on the shoulder, a hug, or sit next to the person for as long as they need when crying out loud is the best thing to do. Non-judgmental company often suffices. Most of the time, the person in distress do not need someone to offer a solution, they may just be crying for your help and support to gather the strength to execute that.