February 16, 2021 Fadela Hilali

What to say and do when people go through a difficult time

For as long as I remember, I use to have this fear of not knowing what to say or saying the wrong thing to people going through a difficult time. Interestingly, I didn’t have that problem with people that were closest to me. Maybe because we had a history that, in my mind, gave me permission to get close to their pain.

It’s different when you’re dealing with a work colleague, especially if they’re going through something you’ve never experienced before. What do you say to someone who’s lost a sibling in a car accident?  Or something less life threatening but still hard to navigate like being made redundant or going through a divorce?

Another obvious question you might have is whether or not it’s even appropriate to mention “it” in some situations. After all, it could bring them more pain or who knows, make them feel embarrassed.

What you will say will depend on the type of relationships you have with the person and your level of proximity. But let’s look at st that ways of approaching these difficult situations that will universally work.

1. Get out of your own head

Yes, you read that right. One of the biggest obstacles to showing up for people who are going through a difficult time is our tendency to overanalyse the situation. It could be obsessing over what to say, worrying that we are reaching out too late (or too soon), saying the wrong thing, or doing the wrong thing. Sometimes, we shy away from reaching out because we fear that we might not have the head space, emotional availability or bandwidth to be supportive.

The fix: Stop. You don’t need to be a psychologist or a philanthropist to show compassion. Showing compassion is the willingness to feel and connect with the person in front of us by imagining being in their shoes. When you connect on that basic human level, without necessarily having experienced their pain in your own life, you are able to respond. You can respond because at that point, it’s easier to think of what to say and do because you can ask yourself how you would have liked to be treated if you were in the same situation. And that, right there, is empathy.

2. Listening that matters

Luckily for us, the best way to make people feel supported and understood has more to do with listening than it does with talking. Assuming someone has decided to open up to you or just mention their hardship, start by just being present. Giving them a safe space to share their feelings without trying to offer solutions is not only kind, but it’s also helpful. It’s showing them that you are present and that you care.

If you think it is appropriate to ask questions (think helpful versus curiosity), be sure that you are willing to listen to the answer. And if you don’t know what to say, don’t know how to show that you feel for them, you can never go say “I’m sorry”.

Whenever I’m coaching people and they recall difficult experiences, they invariably mention how much the small acts of kindness meant to them or alternatively, how isolated they felt when everyone acted like nothing was wrong.

If you remember one thing from today, if someone is going though a difficult time, it’s almost always better to say something.


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