Have you ever felt like you are trying to let a partner, friend, colleague or other person in your life know you are there for them but somehow they end up shutting down or getting more upset?
When you see someone (especially someone close to you) suffering, it often brings up hard feelings. Our go-to is often to give advice or problem solve. This is not necessarily the most effective way to let them know you are there for them and ultimately help them feel better. Instead, they more likely need someone to just be there with them, listen and validate their feelings. This in turn, allows the person to feel heard and understood so that they are able to calm down and figure out how to problem solve on their own if needed.
Here’s an example that we can all relate to. Imagine that your boss tells you that you need to get an assignment to her by the end of the day. Of course, you mean to get to it, but a million things come up during your day and you’re not able to get the assignment done. As you are leaving for the day tired and stressed, your boss asks you where the report is. You try to tell them that other urgent matters came up, and that you will do it first thing tomorrow morning. They tell you to stop with the excuses and that it was irresponsible not to get it done, with your colleagues within ear shot. You leave not only feeling bad about yourself but mortified that you were called out in front of your colleagues. You call a friend on your walk home from work hoping for some support.
Here are a few examples of the ways they could respond. Imagine your response to these different responses.
Advice: “you know what you should do? Tomorrow, you should march into the office and explain to your boss…” “and then you should get it done and…”
Denial of feelings: “It doesn’t matter what your boss thinks, you know you had good reasons. It’s not worth being so upset!”
Questions: “What exactly were those other things that came up? “Didn’t you know it was important?” “Didn’t you know your boss would react this way if you didn’t get it done?”
Defense of the other person: “She probably didn’t mean it that way. She probably has a lot on her plate and just had a stressful day herself…”
A validating response (an attempt at tuning into your feelings): “Man, that sounds awful. All that work that you had to get done. And then to confront you like that in front of your colleagues!”
(Faber and Mazlish, 2012)
How did you react to those responses? I know when I’m upset and I just want someone to listen, the first 4 types of responses make me feel worse or not want to share to all. I just need someone to listen and tell me that they can hear why I am so upset, frustrated or angry, like in the final validating response.
Here is a step-by-step guide to supporting someone when they are distressed, going through something, or feeling frustrated, angry or sad.
Attend to the other’s feelings. What is the other person feeling right now?
Validate the other’s experience. Put your feet in the other’s shoes. Accept and allow them to feel the way they feel. “It makes sense that you’d feel x”… Change BUT to BECAUSE. “Of course, you’re angry BECAUSE you’ve been working so hard and you’re not feeling appreciated by your boss…”
Meet their Need. Do they just need to vent? Do they need your full attention? A hug? An “I’m here for you?” A distraction or a kind gesture? If they want your advice or help with problem solving, they’ll ask!
Try this out in your relationships. A little validation can go a long way!
Faber, A. and Mazlish, E. (2012). How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. New York, New York.
Lisa Schwartz is a clinical therapist at our Toronto clinic.