Much about this COVID-19 situation is difficult.
We don’t always know how to respond to someone else’s pain.
Professionally, I have established a physical space where I work with clients one-on-one. For seven years, I have had honest truths expressed and revealed as people peel away layers of their life while moving their bodies.
I’m not a therapist, nor am I perfect at saying the right thing at the right time, but here are a few tips I learned along the way on how to effectively “hold space” when someone shares their pain with us:
>> Ask, “How can I help?” Mean it and be prepared to follow through.
>> Proactively check in on someone who may be in a vulnerable position. In this case, it’s business owners, single parents, single people, the elderly, and people with fragile health conditions (mental or physical). Check-ins create an open space for conversations rather than waiting for someone to approach us. This is the greatest gift we can offer—the gift of connection.
>> Believe in the power of listening rather than solving. It’s not necessary to have solutions, as there may not be any. Instead, think about asking questions such as “What do you think might improve this situation?” Or “What is the next best thing you know how to do?” Or “How can we break this big problem into smaller ones?” These let the person solve the problem for themselves, which is crucial because we know but a mere sliver of what the talker is experiencing, no matter how well we know them.
>> Believe the person and their experience. Try to avoid phrases such as “Are you sure?” Or “That can’t be right,” or “Something seems off about that.” Instead, validate them by saying, “That must be hard for you,” or “I would have been in your shoes had this happened last year.“
>> Try to avoid using the phrase “At least...” Our culture has been bred to focus on the “positive.” It’s neither nurturing nor supportive when the response to someone sharing their struggles—income loss, family conflict, perceived parenting failures, or other stressors—starts with that phrase. It would sound something like, “At least you have your health.” That can feel invalidating even if the intent is to be supportive.
>> Trust that there will come a moment to help direct the person to gratitude or positivity. It may happen after the person has to express themselves entirely rather than before. Listen, with reasonable boundaries, before trying to redirect to positive thoughts.
>> Indicate solidarity and active listening. Some examples of responses include: “That must be hard for you,” or “Thank you for sharing,” or “I hear what you are saying.“
>> Ask helpful probing questions such as “What do you think might improve the situation?” Or “What’s one small thing you can do today that would make this more manageable?” Or “What’s the next step?“
>> Do not ask, “Why don’t you” questions about something that happened in the past. It is now a retrospective decision. An example would be, “Why don’t you have savings right now?” Also, don’t ask about something in the future; this is unsolicited advice. Just because someone is sharing their feelings doesn’t mean they want advice or thoughts about why they weren’t adequately prepared. Ask someone if they want help before giving it, and do not analyze why they require support.
>> Do not offer feedback on their mood or responses. Stress and chaos can make people angry, curt, overwhelmed, anxious, panicked, or a host of other things that may not place their responses in the bucket of kindness. It’s not the time to help someone work on their tone or delivery—set a time or other boundaries if conversations feel this way.
>> Do not remind them of your kindness or make them feel obligated. Your ear and support must feel like a gift with no strings attached.
>> Do not suggest exercise, meditation, or therapy. Everyone knows these exist, so if the person is talking, it means they want to speak and not meditate or exercise. No matter how helpful these tools may be, they are not replacements for connection, community, or even panaceas for stress. If you must introduce them, simply say, “Have you tried ____?” And be prepared to accept their answer without convincing them of a solution.
>> Do not say, “Just try anyway.” Effort can feel hard when someone is stressed. The word “just” might be a just to you, but a proverbial mountain to someone else. Mainly because we don’t know what their entire life load looks like.
>> Do not take anger or rage personally. It likely has nothing to do with you.
I hope these are helpful to everyone! We can and we will make it through this. Together.