What can we do and say when someone shares something painful with us?

23rd February 2020

This is a question that I’ve been asked quite a few times in the last few weeks. I’ve been working with groups of managers to help them feel more able and confident to have a conversation with someone when they share something that they’re finding difficult.

At the start of each session, we collated a list of the different things that people have brought up. Here’s a few examples of the types of things that team members have shared with their line managers;

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Alcoholism
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Self harm
  • Terminal illness
  • Care of an elderly parent
  • Bereavement
  • Psychosis
  • PTSD
  • Bi polar
  • Cancer
  • Relationship problems
  • Domestic abuse
  • Sexual abuse

That’s quite a list isn’t it?

For most of these managers, their number one fear was saying the wrong thing and making things worse as a result. 

Sitting with someone whilst they talk about any of the above is always going to be tough. 

When I was going through cancer treatment some years ago, I noticed how difficult it was for some people to even mention the word ‘cancer.’ I’m not trying to shame people, because these are tough topics, but I think there’s something to be said for going towards the issue rather than ignoring it. When people didn’t ask how I was doing, or what was happening with my treatment, I somehow felt it wasn’t OK to talk about it, and that I was too much for people. The avoidance somehow made my situation shameful and something only whispered about in private.

For the most part what people need is to know that they’re not alone and that we are prepared to sit with them while they talk about whatever it is that they’re struggling with. In the training session that we ran, working with role players we explored a range of tactics and approaches for handling these types of conversations, and here’s what we learned;

  • It can take a huge amount of courage and personal resources for people to share some of this stuff, so don’t try and hurry them.
  • We may need to suspend our agenda for now, while we find out what is really going on for them and how they feel about it.
  • Silence and listening are vital. Just because they’ve gone quiet doesn’t mean they’re stuck for something to say. It could be they’re just working out a way to tell us something important.

Empathy is our greatest superpower

There’s no doubt about it, listening to someone who’s struggling and deeply troubled can be really tough. In conversations like these, empathy really is our greatest superpower.  I love the description that Brene Brown uses in this video, of the 4 parts to empathy;

  1. Perspective taking – and working hard to see the other persons viewpoint
  2. Staying out of judgment 
  3. Picking up how they’re feeling
  4. Saying something to acknowledge what you’ve heard.

With all the focus on talking about our mental health in particular, this is probably something that we all need to be ready for. Whilst ultimately for some of the issues mentioned above, people might also need to seek professional help, as managers we need to be better equipped to stay in the moment and do what we can to let people know that they aren’t alone.

In some ways it’s quite freeing to think that the best thing we can do in one of these conversations is to be ourselves; show that we’re really listening and prepared to hear whatever it is that they want to say.

There’s no doubt these types of conversations are tough. But remembering that our role here is to just be with the other and even saying “I can’t even imagine what this is like for you” is better than trying to offer platitudes or solutions that minimise and try to silver line something that we can neither fix nor change.

#gillparkin #coaching #counselling #psychotherapy #empathy