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Be honest when helping someone through tough times

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Be honest, specific when helping someone through rough patch

Washington: My husband is going through a very difficult time at work. I want to be supportive. However, I find myself repeating trite comments like "That sucks, I'm sorry" or "It'll get better soon." I'd appreciate any thoughts about how to help a loved one through a tough time when you (and he) have no control over the situation.

Carolyn: How about adding to the repertoire "What can I do to make it better?" — as long as you're prepared to hear "Stop asking me about it" or something surly like that, which is not okay but is still pretty typical backlash against concerned observers. You can also try "Can you think of anything you could do that would make it easier on you?"

Neither one is easy to hear, but when posed nicely (as opposed to unctuously, a fine distinction that's hard to make in writing), these types of questions can orient a sufferer's thinking toward action, which is always better than reactive kvetching and moaning.

Maryland: Re: Tough times: Unless it is too difficult, Washington should try listening without commenting. He may not want feedback, just someone to talk to. As someone who has been in this position, the last thing I wanted to hear was "Can you think of anything you could do that would make it easier on you?" When I was going through this, I did try to find ways to make it easier … the comment just comes across as somewhat supercilious and really can be annoying.

Carolyn: Then you answer, "I've tried it all, and all that really helps at this point is a sympathetic ear." People who are having a tough time aren't holders of get-out-of-obnoxious-behavior-free cards. If you're going through hell and that's what you're bringing home, endlessly until it eventually and unforeseeably ends, then you need to know you're putting your designated listener(s) through hell, too.

And, in resenting people's efforts to shift the dynamic and/or break the monotony of complaints, you're also disempowering them — both from taking care of you and from taking care of themselves. You may be powerless to change your situation, but how cruel is it to then spread that powerlessness around to others?

If you want something specific from them, then be specific: "Advice only makes me feel worse, even though I know you mean well. I would just like to talk." Loved ones owe it to you to respect that.

And if they want something from you, then encourage them to be honest with you, too, and don't punish them for saying: "I do want to help, and am glad to listen, but I'm watching you swirl into a gloom spiral, and it's dragging me down, too. I would appreciate it if you at least tried to rally — if not just for you, then for us." You owe it to loved ones to respect a request like that.

The "rough patch" is a staple of relationships, in two general forms: the one that tears people apart, and the one that brings them closer. Tearing apart means expecting minds to be read, and getting angry when someone falls short. Getting closer means being clear in what you think, feel and want, and accepting such clarity from others.

Be honest when helping someone through tough times 04/07/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 7, 2010 5:30am]

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