If you want to come across as insensitive, or even hostile, there are two things you can say to someone who is upset that will immediately do the trick: Calm down and just relax.
If anyone ever said them to you, you know exactly what I mean. Did you suddenly feel better? I doubt it. They sound more like veiled criticisms and demands than comfort.
On the other hand, if you actually listen to what someone is feeling and saying, pay attention to their body language, or tell them they will be ok, they will probably feel supported, heard, validated, and soothed.
Think of what you would say to a distraught child. It’s OK sweetheart. You’ll be fine. I know it hurts. I’m here for you. I’m not going anywhere. Just cry, it’s OK.
Trying to solve a problem when someone is worked up is incredibly unhelpful, though it can be useful once they have calmed down.
The most interesting aspect of this is how the simplest things can often be the most profound.
Doctors and nurses know this as in the midst of a procedure they might simply say to a patient: You’re doing great, just keep breathing. This is both supportive and grounding.
The other thing that I think stymies people who want to be loving and present when someone they care about is suffering, is the same dynamic as what thwarts people when they try to be assertive; namely, saying too much.
In both comforting someone and being assertive, the urge to keep trying to find some magical sentence that will make the comment land in the best way possible often leads to saying something that would have been better left unsaid.
This is why keeping things succinct and clear is the best strategy in both situations.
Sometimes, the desire to find the exact right thing turns out to be the exact wrong thing. And why is that? Because it’s not about you feeling better in your ability to help, it’s about communicating in the most effective and kind way possible.
The beauty in using this approach is that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Saying things in a succinct, direct, and compassionate way, and repeating the same thing as often as necessary, makes it a lot easier for you.
The hardest part is learning to say less, listening more carefully, and being fully present.
The good news is that, once you see the positive results, it becomes very self-reinforcing.
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