How NOT to Console Someone When They are Upset

Lately, I’ve been thinking that a lot of people don’t seem to know how to comfort someone who’s feeling sad.

Part of this, I suspect, has to do with societal perceptions of sadness itself.  It’s seen as a “negative” emotion—a state of mind meant to be avoided and eliminated as much as possible, by whatever means necessary.

Often, these means include substances and other maladaptive behaviours, especially within the Western world.

People are uncomfortable around sadness, both their own and that of others.  This discomfort often leads people to try to rush others through their sadness, rather than let it pass in its own time.

There is a common, instantly recognizable form this rushing often takes.  As an example, imagine someone you know is upset because they just lost their job.

It may have been due to performance issues, or maybe a corporate restructuring that saw their position eliminated.  It doesn’t even matter because both the typical way and the better way of responding remain the same.

Here is the typical way:

“I’m sorry you lost your job.  I know how you feel.  I lost my job years ago, and it was hard on me too at first.  But in the end it was good for me because a month later, I found a new position that I like a whole lot better.  You have a lot to offer any company so I’m sure the same will happen for you.”

Notice which words feature prominently in this statement:

My.

Me.

I.

Standing in sadness

It makes sense that people do this, and in almost all cases, it comes from a place of compassion.  We’ve all been taught that the best way to connect with people is through our shared experiences, especially challenging or otherwise “negative” ones.

Such vulnerability is indeed useful in forming and strengthening relationships, and helping build bonds of trust.

However, there is a time and place for talking about one’s self.  At the height of someone’s sadness might not be that time.

For one thing, to do so is to deflect the person’s sadness, to dismiss it even, rather than empathizing and supporting them through their challenging time.

Rather than being allowed to sit with their feelings, the person is being “bright-sided”, a frequent tactic for shielding oneself from unpleasant emotional sensations.

More than anything, though, the speaker in the example has almost completely made the situation about them—about their subsequent success that resulted from adversity.

It’s no doubt a compelling story.  But again, not necessarily the right time for it.  Inasmuch as people are responsible for their own emotions, why knowingly say something that, in that particular moment, may well cause the person to feel worse?

Why kick someone who is already down?

A better way to address this situation involves not trying to take away a person’s pain.

As uncomfortable as it might feel—all the more so because we often lack practice in it—the better way is to join the person in their pain.  To sit within it with them, to acknowledge their feelings without trying to banish them.

To keep the situation about them.

Here is the above example rewritten to center the upset individual:

“I’m sorry you lost your job.  It’s so challenging when that happens.  It’s really unfair.  If I can help you out in any way, let me know.  You’re a great worker and have lots to offer to any company.”

Depending upon how well you know the person and how upset they are, it might be appropriate to insert a few, select silver linings that continue to focus on them.  “I’m sure you’ll find a new position before long.  You have so many skills that the industry wants right now.”

Of course, timing is everything when it comes to silver linings as well, as are they very situation-specific.  You wouldn’t want to say “I’m sure you’ll find something soon” to someone who’s been unsuccessfully job searching for six months, because reality has already proven this false.

It’s only likely to upset the person more, and possibly lead them to question your sincerity in addition.

Often when people share their sadness or disappointment, they don’t actually want you to try to fix it, or offer solutions, or otherwise blow sunshine up their butts about how everything is going to be okay.

Usually, it’s because they just want you to listen.  Because they value or trust you enough to stand in their sadness with them rather than hide from it—to understand, acknowledge and care about what they’re going through, without judgement or ridicule.

That’s really all there is to it.

The world seems to be heading in a dark direction in recent years, with a lot of situations befalling people that have no easy solutions and are an affront to their physical and emotional safety.

The better we can become at helping others when they’re sad is the stronger we’ll all be in our ongoing efforts at making this world a better place.

A/N: The example used in this post was for demonstration purposes only.  I did not lose my job.  However in the course of writing this, I found out this did happen to a friend, so I got to practice what I preach.

What methods have you used to support someone who is upset?

(Image source)

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5 thoughts on “How NOT to Console Someone When They are Upset

  1. A work acquaintance came up to me out of the blue and started telling me about a pending messy divorce. I listened, then told him if he ever wanted to talk… call me. I gave him my number. He said he would not call. I said that’s OK, your choice, but sometimes you need to talk to someone that understands. My offer is there to use if you want it or not. He must have really felt sad that day, because he never told me his personal problems before. He didnt call, but I meant what I said, in case he did.

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    • That was good of you. He may have just needed someone to show that they really cared that day. By giving him your number, even though he didn’t call, you may have helped prove to him the validity of his own feelings, such that someone he’s never really talked to like that before felt the situation warranted an invitation to talk further if necessary.

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  2. As you astutely pointed out, it’s not about YOU.

    When you’re pregnant, EVERYONE feels the strong need to give you advice and tell you all THEIR horrible pregnancy stories, and everything they’ve ever heard. It’s the worst thing you can do to the poor woman.

    It’s a bad habit that comes from a very misplaced sense of empathy. Someone is not bringing up a topic of general conversation.

    Listening is a valuable tool – and a severely under-utilized one.

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    • I’ve heard that people can be overbearing in their dealings with pregnant women. You’re probably right that it’s from misplaced empathy. Yet it seems so counter-intuitive to try to connect with someone by spending almost no time talking about THEM and finding out what THEY need.

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      • It’s not empathy – so much as a release of the normal strictures of commenting on other people’s appearance and personal business. Once a topic has been brought up, these people feel it gives them the right to say anything they might thoughtlessly let fall out of their heads. There is so much wrong with it that the victim has no idea where to start!

        Busybodies abound.

        Miss Manners recommends a very frosty, “I beg your pardon!” or “How kind it is of you to inquire into my personal business, but I assure you it is under control.” or “My doctor has advised me to listen only to him/her.”

        As someone with a chronic illness of 28+ years’ standing, I can assure you that anything else is asking for trouble.

        And, of course, as a writer: save all the bits up so you can say, when someone tasks you with not being believable in your writing, that you took notes when an actual person said this.

        I love being a writer.

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