In two earlier posts (April 6 and August 17), drawing on his more than 30 years of clinical psychology practice, Michael Church shared some ideas about how to talk to others who are troubled:
“Listen” to what others tell you; don’t just “hear” them. Be uncritical to show them you understand what they are going through.
Remember, it’s not about you, but about them. “Here’s what I would do if I were you,” is not a helpful comment. You are not about “being them,” so don’t go there.
Do not label them (“Jane is bipolar, so I should offer to babysit her kids.”) The labels will stereotype them in your mind and bias your interactions with them.
Rather than criticizing them, help them consider positive actions they can take when down on life.
Use caution when discussing medications. Focus your talks on their life conflicts, not on their medications.
Here are some more examples of conversations that illustrate some good ways to respond to troubled folks.
Comment: “I don’t know why I drink so much. Things go well for a while and then I do stupid things and just hurt myself with stupid actions. It seems like I go three steps forward and four steps back. What is my problem?”
Response: “I guess we don’t always know why we do what we do. That seems natural to me. But you’re asking some pretty deep questions about why you’re so self-defeating and self-destructive. Do you think a professional could help you find the answers?”
Notice how the commenter is cleverly trying to trap the respondent into joining the pity parade. But the respondent doesn’t fall for it, and instead directs a question at the commenter forcing him/her to focus on the solution proposed. It’s important to convey empathy to those who are troubled, but that doesn’t mean joining their pity parade.
Comment: “I don’t know why I can’t take my medications and go to counseling like I’m supposed to. I don’t want to work or even get out of bed. It has been this way for a long time. I don’t even care about my friends and family. Who cares?”
Response: “Sounds logical to me. Why would you care about taking your medicine or going to doctors if you have this apathy about life? Until you care you’re sure not going to be doing much of anything that makes you feel good. You’ll just keep giving yourself more pain. Is pain what you want, though? You have to decide because aren’t you the only one who can change your life? Aren’t you the only one who can decide if you have a desire to live your life to the fullest?”
This response goes a long way toward expressing acceptance and understanding of the commenter. But then a key question is raised that challenges the commenter in a positive way: “Is pain what you want?” Again, notice how the response conveys empathy, but goes on to challenge the listener.
To summarize, the main thing to remember when someone comes to you for advice and help is simple: It’s not about you; it’s about them. In these instances, we tend to say things like, “You really shouldn’t feel that way. You’re being unrealistic; plus, I have found that it helps a lot to….” Such comments, which substitute your perspective for the other person’s, show a lack of empathy and understanding on your part.
When talking to those who are troubled, resist the temptation to express your opinion. Rather than tell them what to do, encourage them to develop a feeling of empowerment by posing questions to them to help them consider possible courses of action. Take yourself out of the equation because the issue is not what you would do; the issue is to encourage them to consider proactive options consistent with their needs and abilities.