3 things NOT to do when someone is feeling mad/sad/hurt (and what to do instead)

Feb 20, 2020

Photo by DANNY G on Unsplash

I managed to avoid a total disaster yesterday.

I was in the car with my wife, driving back from a long weekend away in nature. 

Since we had left on our trip, we had been avoiding checking our phones. Alas, now that the trip was over it was time to get back into the swing of things.

Once we got reception back, my wife checked her phone and surveyed her emails.

And as she came back to "reality", she became very worried and sad about some tasks she had (knowingly) been neglecting.

Within minutes, she was in full breakdown mode.

*And, freeze!*

This is a situation that has happened more times than I can count. Maybe you've encountered a similar situation:

1) Circumstances aren't favourable for your partner/loved one/friend/coworker
And then
2) They start to get emotional regarding the circumstances

And it is at this pivotal juncture that you have the power to create a stronger connection OR annoy the crap out of the other person.

I tend to be really good at the latter.

Why? Because my default way of acting when someone I know (and love) is in anguish is to come to their rescue, specifically by hopping into "fix-it" mode.

There are many, many variations of "fix-it" mode, though I will share my top 3 go-to's that get me into trouble:

1) Advising
This is definitely my top choice. I'm always quick to give unsolicited advice, commentaries and suggestions to the dismay (and displeasure) of my wife. The key word here is "unsolicited". The reason I get into trouble with this is that she isn't always looking for advice.
It could be because my advice isn't really that good.
It could be that my advice worked well for me, but doesn't apply to her situation.
It could be that the advice I gave is not actually what she is looking for.

No wonder my advice often falls on deaf ears and, more often than I'd like to admit, makes the situation worse than it already is.

2) Analyzing
This is a close offshoot of the previous tactic. Instead of straight-up giving advice, I hop into problem-solving mode and analyze the situation way more than it needs to be. I start to formulate arguments and counter-arguments for something that simply doesn't merit that kind of brainpower. Regardless of how accurate or on-point my analysis may be, the fact is that this too may not be what she is looking for (and ultimately leaves her in a worse place than she was before).

3) "At-least"-ing
Yes, you know what I'm talking about. We've all been on the giving and receiving end of this (sometimes brutal) automatic response. Though finding the silver lining in a situation may seem like a good idea, it is possible (and often likely) that the other person is not interested in seeing "the bright side".
Did you lose your watch? Well, it was bound to break at some point anyway.
Did you not get the job you wanted? Well, I'm sure something better will turn up.
You get the idea...

Now that you know what not to do, here is what I suggest you do: sit and listen (and, if you'd like, ask them how you can help).

On this fateful afternoon, this is exactly what I did. And I have to say: it was incredibly uncomfortable and unnatural for me to do so. I sooooooo badly wanted to chime in, to come to the rescue, to say nice things, to convince her things weren't as bad as they seem... but I didn't.

I sat there in the seat opposite her and kept my mouth shut. I put my hand on the small of her back and let her express herself and her emotions.

After a pause of what seemed like an eternity (which, upon reflection, probably lasted about 5 minutes), she turned to me, thanked me for listening, and got to work.

What had her be able to respond so well is that the entire interaction was about her, not me. When I hop into "fix-it" mode, the conversation becomes about me, not her. That's why advising/analyzing/"at-least"-ing doesn't (always) work.

Does that mean I should never give advice, analyze, or share perspectives? Of course not! Sometimes that is exactly what she (and any other person) is looking for.

But not all the time.

And when my default is to rush to that, sometimes I get caught in a trap, giving my wife/the other person something they don't want in the first place (which only makes things worse).

Are you prone to jumping into "fix-it" mode? Which of the 3 versions do you tend to veer toward? Comment below and let me know!

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