Responding to Other’s “Heavy” News

The Today Show on NBC the other morning had a segment on “What do you Say?”—or something similar. They interviewed people in the street to ask what they would say—or have had others say to them—in response to challenging situations: a job loss; the death of a family member; a divorce, etc. Many of the “helpful” responses actually resulted in angering, or frustrating, the afflicted person: “I know how you feel—but, getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to me,” “You’re lucky—could have been worse” or “Hey, it’s a new beginning!”

Watching this segment reminded me of something I often share in workshops: when another person is preoccupied—or upset—facing a situation like mentioned previously, the question we need to keep in mind is simply, “What does this person need from me?” Our natural inclination is to attempt to “help” or make others feel “better.” Problem is…we don’t know if that’s what the other really needs. Perhaps they simply need a sympathetic ear? Maybe they don’t actually need anything from you…just to share the information. Or, possibly they want your advice, or insights into previous experience with the same situation. But, you don’t know which of these options might be in play, so…best to simply focus on the other, and listen for what they might need from you.

One way to respond that might encourage the other to say more (and perhaps get to telling you what they’d like from you, e.g. advice, experience, thoughts, etc.) is to try and feed back what emotion you think the other person might be experiencing. We refer to this as a “LIFE” skill (Listening Intently For Emotion). As you listen, you can ask yourself, “What might this be like for the other person to have experienced this?” Often, emotions such as confusion, uncertainty, surprise, sadness, difficulty, etc. are present. Once we have deciphered our impression, we can simply verbalize it—without adding to the original message with new content/analysis, questions, etc.—as a means of proving we “hear” the other person: “Wow! Must have been surprising to hear that,” or, “I really sense your disappointment with this new situation.” The key is to deliver the response with sincerity and an invitational tone—while matching the emotional intensity of the other’s message (can’t phone it in!). The goal is to help the other feel heard and encourage them to say more (where you can listen for what they might need from you)–without you trying to change or “fix” them.
A key theme to bear in mind when someone else shares a “heavy” piece of news with you is that it is NOT your job to try and make them feel better…the best gift you can give is to be someone who accepts them and their situation, and demonstrates understanding and a willingness to provide time for the other to explore/share more deeply—if they choose to do so. Let’s be less “Fixer” and more “Listener!” Try taking this tip on a test drive…and see what you think!