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Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Bringing Compassion Forward In Life and Work”

Have you ever been going through a very difficult time in your life, and you begin talking about it with friends, colleagues or family members, only to have them hijack the conversation and make it all about them and their own experiences? Or perhaps they share their “expert advice” which feels unhelpful or judgmental? These experiences are annoying at best, and infuriating and hurtful at worst.

At the time of this writing, my sister and I are going through the hospice and dying phase of our beloved 98-year-old mother, and it’s an excruciatingly difficult time, as anyone who has lost someone they love knows. We lost our dear father 10 years ago to cancer that had spread throughout his body, and that too was so very difficult, for him and our family.

Since that time, as I’ve focused intently on working with thousands of people helping them engage in personal and professional development, and from my former years as a family therapist, I’ve seen firsthand a lot about common human behaviors that truly need to be addressed and changed if we’re to be as helpful and supportive to other human beings as we want to be. 

One of those things we need to address is how we speak to and relate with people in our lives who are going through a deeply emotional and difficult time.

I’ve seen there are 7 hurtful behaviors that we should avoid at all costs when speaking and connecting with people who are suffering.

These thoughtless behaviors can add insult and injury to our friends and colleagues, and that is the very last thing that people who are suffering need to deal with.

I know I’ve made some of these mistakes myself, and continue to, but I’m working on revising these behaviors and my own language and approach to try to be as supportive as possible to my friends and colleagues in their difficult times.

These 7 hurtful behaviors are:

#1: Hijacking the conversation away from the one who is hurting

When people start sharing with you the painful time they are going through, do not immediately jump in and share that you’ve been through the same thing. First of all, you haven’t. What they are going through may seem similar to your experiences, but the individual in front of you is processing through their own deeply personal experience. You might think it’s helpful to share what you went through, but there’s a time and place for that, and it’s not right away, when your friend is sharing what they’re dealing with for the first time. What that person needs as they begin to share with you is your open and compassionate listening ears. That’s all.

Tip: Ask them this question “Wow, that sounds so hard. How are you holding up?” That’s it. Ask them how they are doing and then let them talk for as long as they need to, sharing openly and honestly what they’re facing.

#2: Giving advice when you know nothing about the real situation that person is facing

Another big mistake is to jump in with your advice. You’re not in a position to give advice at that time. Let the individual share their thoughts and feelings without interruption, and be an open, non-judging receptacle for that. Hold off from advice-giving unless they specifically ask you for your opinion and input about a situation or question.

Tip: You may want to jump in and offer your advice as a way of being helpful. But remember that, if they want your advice, they will ask for it.

#3: Negating their pain

In our situation, my mom has lived a wonderfully long and healthy life, which is a true blessing. But I’ve been completely floored at how many people respond to me (after I share that she is dying) with this comment,

“ Well, she’s lived a really long life!”

They might as well have said, “Well, what do you expect – she’s old.” They act as if her long life makes our losing our mother any easier. It does not. Often their comments about her longevity sound flip and cavalier, and they appear as if these folks believe it is easier to let her go if she’s lived a long time. They are wrong–in some ways, it’s even harder.

Tip: Don’t offer your assessment of how painful or not the situation should be for the person in front of you. Just follow their lead and be compassionate about what they sharing.

#4: Telling them that “it’s the best thing” or it’s happening for a good reason

So many people who’ve lost loved ones or been through a traumatic experience have been devastated even further by unthinking comments from others who seem to imply that this painful situation is happening for a good reason and all will come out better because of it.

You may believe that down to your toes, and in fact, there may be some truth to it (that this difficult situation –  such as being fired or laid off or leaving a narcissistic spouse – might pave the way for a better, happier experience in the future). But it’s selfish to utter those words to a grieving person. They are most likely not in the state to hear that, nor is it a supportive idea to them. They are in pain now and your trying to interrupt their grieving process is not what they need at the moment.

Tip: Refrain from offering your view that this very difficult experience is happening for “a good reason.” It’s your belief and that’s fine, but you need to think about what is best for the person in front of you. And hoping to make them feel better or “cheer them up” in this way may be the worst thing to attempt at this time.

#5: Forgetting to even ask how the person is feeling and doing and asking how you can help

In thinking about the many responses I’ve received from friends, family members and colleagues in the past month when I’ve shared that mom is in the dying process, I’ve been floored by the percentage of folks (more than 50%) who forget to ask “How are you feeling during this time and is there anything I can do to help?”  Again, the first words to be uttered should be a question about them and how they are faring, not what you think of the situation.

Tip: Share how sorry you are that they are going through this difficult time, and ask how they are. Feel free to also ask “Is there anything I could do that would be helpful” One lovely friend of mine, Beth, went further and said, “I’d love to make you my favorite soup. Can I please bring that to you?’ That was such a kind idea and felt to me like a very supportive gesture of love.

#6: Judging them for what they are feeling

Most human beings I’ve ever met are fearful of being judged negatively. It’s an extremely common human fear – that we’ll be put down, judged, made fun of or alienated for what we think, feel and do. Consider how social media has had such a negative impact on so many young people – comparison to others and our feelings of inadequacy can be devastating.

Tip: When someone shares about their difficult time, do not offer a judgment. Keep those thoughts to yourself. As Wendy Mass shared so wisely, “Be kind, as everyone you meet is dealing with an inner battle you know nothing about.” 

Don’t judge, assess, instruct or educate. Just listen. Now is not the time to insert yourself and your beliefs into their situation.

#7: Using this person’s painful experience as a way to talk about and work through your own unresolved pain

Finally, I’ve seen in my beginning shares about mom’s situation, that so many people will jump on that experience of our sharing a painful experience to start working through their own unresolved pain of a similar situation.

They will get tearful and talk about what they did or didn’t do in the past that hurts them still. They offer information about their regrets, what they did that they wish they hadn’t, or how others behaved during their difficult time in ways that still pain them.

This sharing is often a knee-jerk reaction – they may not even be conscious that they’ve turned the conversation into a therapeutic release for them. The problem is that the individual on the receiving end of this therapeutic release isn’t typically helped by it. It just adds to the burden they are already dealing with. 

Tip: If you’re close to the individual who is sharing their painful experiences, rest assured there will be time to delve into different aspects of it and offer your thoughts, feelings and input.

But in the beginning when you first hear of your friend’s pain and distress, it’s not the time to use that to work through your own unresolved feelings.

Keep your focus on how to help the person who is going through their own challenges and needs more of your support, love, compassion and deep understanding, 

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For more about how to improve your communication and interrelations with others, visit Kathy Caprino’s Communications Development coaching consultation and her Career and Leadership Breakthrough coaching program today and join the next session of her The Most Powerful You 8-week live course.