An important part of coping is being able to assist others in need. How do you handle things when someone reaches out to you for advice, or just wants to get a sympathetic ear? Being a listener can be challenging because you are likely to be concerned about saying the wrong thing and making things worse. Here are some examples that illustrate some good ways to respond to troubled folks.
Comment: “Life just sucks! It’s just too hard. I’ll never be the type who commits suicide, but I’ll be damned…. I don’t care if I live another day.”
Response: “I agree life doesn’t seem worth it at times. I imagine just about everyone has those feelings at one time or another. I’ve been there, too. But I bet most people would say that life is what we make of it. Life deals the hand, but we decide how we want to play it. Have you asked yourself what you’re willing to face, what you need to do to get more out of your life? Do you think there are better choices you can make?”
Note how this response centers on two things: empathy and empowerment. The first part of the response says, “I hear you and understand where you’re coming from because I’ve been there.” In the face of total negativity about life, the second part focuses on optimistic proactive coping strategies, using such phrases as “we decide,” “what you’re willing to face,” “need to do,” and “better choices you can make.” The point is, rather than criticize the speaker, the focus is on helping them consider positive actions when down on life.
Our next example deals with self-blame over past events:
Comment: “I can’t get over things that happened a long time ago when I was a kid. These memories haunt me; I’m damaged forever. I can’t overcome it. It’s just no use in trying. I’ve tried but it’s no use.”
Response: “I guess we all have our crosses to bear. Lots of people have long-term problems dealing with traumatic things. You hear about them on the news all the time. But look at all the stories of people who have moved on and learned to cope with all kinds of traumas, injuries, even death of a loved one. If they can do it, why can’t you? I bet a lot of them got some counseling. Are you willing to give counseling a try before you throw in the towel? Isn’t it at least an option?”
This commenter is hung up on the past and determined to blame those who have damaged him/her. The response points out that many people must travel a rocky road of life, and the great majority of them have grown and prospered in spite of a lousy upbringing. Then, important questions are raised to help the commenter focus on positive actions that can be taken.
In these examples, note how both responses pose questions to the speaker. Using questions tells listeners that confronting problems is up to them, and your questions imply you have confidence in their ability to do so. Also, remember that when talking to those who are troubled, you will be tempted to express your opinion. You must take yourself out of the equation, however, because the issue is not what you would do; the issue is to encourage listeners to consider proactive options consistent with their needs and abilities.