As a kid, I grew up watching reruns of “Welcome Back, Kotter”. I loved the show for many reasons….one was that John Travolta was just so damn cool. (I had visions of being that cool in high school. Sadly that didn’t happen.)
Another was that I loved to laugh at the ridiculous behavior of Arnold Horshack. Who could forget his attention getting “OOH! OOH!! OOH!!!” whenever he was desperate to share an answer with the class? (Click the video below for a reminder!)
And while his behavior was really exaggerated, there are times in my personal life when I fall prey to the same desperate urge to share what I think is the right answer to a problem with one of my loved ones.
As a coach, I have been carefully trained to ask questions to help my clients find their own answers, rather than trying to force my answers and solutions on them.
But when I’m “off-duty”, the temptation to help fix problems and soothe hurt feelings for my friends and family can be overwhelming. It is so hard to see my loved ones unhappy that I tend to take on the responsibility of resolving any negativity in their lives.
While visiting my family a few weeks ago, I was reminded by my 9 month old nephew Weston that there is something more powerful than words when you are looking to provide comfort to others.
Weston is a happier-than-average kid (in my biased opinion) but like any of us, he gets upset from time to time. When he is upset, all he wants is to be held by the people he loves.
He isn’t saying more than 1 or 2 words right now, and doesn’t understand much of verbal language. But he does understand that presence = comfort.
When those close to me get upset, I am often tempted to offer what I think are words of comfort or consolation. I tend to forget that my presence is the best gift I could give my loved ones.
After spending time with Weston, I was reminded of the importance of just being present for my loved ones, without trying to change or fix anything.
There are several strategies that I have found helpful when I’m trying to focus on being present. Here they are:
1. Focus on active listening, not just waiting your turn to talk.
Active listening is a technique where you ask questions to better understand what someone is saying, then restate in your own words what you have heard. The questions you ask and the re-statement of what you think you have heard helps to avoid misunderstandings that arise when you make assumptions or draw conclusions about what the other person is saying.
Sometimes when I am using this technique I will imagine myself as a reporter who needs to understand all aspects of the story in order to report it accurately. I use the image of a reporter because they are supposed to report all the facts in an unbiased manner without inserting their opinion.
This persona keeps me focused on asking questions rather than rushing to tell my loved one all of the ideas I have about solutions.
2. Use the mantra “all is well” to let go of the impulse to fix the problem.
We tend to want to fix people or situations that aren’t going the way we think they should. This conflict between the way things are and the way we want them to be is the very definition of suffering.
To ease our suffering as we watch a loved one going through a hard time, we often start to offer advice to change the situation.
But what if that tough situation was exactly what the other person needed to go through (and figure out on their own) in order tobecome who they were really meant to be – grow and become a more fully developed human being? When viewed in this light, protecting your loved one from struggle is hurtful rather than helpful.
(I want to offer a quick disclaimer here….I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t offer practical help, like cooking meals for a new mom or going grocery shopping for someone who is ill. What I am suggesting is that we shouldn’t talk people out of working through tough questions like “Would it mean I was a bad person if I didn’t want to have kids?” Or “Am I wrong for not wanting to loan my sister money to help her get out of debt?”)
The consequence of interfering in work that can only be done by another is easily seen in nature. For example, if you have ever seen a butterfly trying to free itself from it’s cocoon, you might be tempted to help it out by opening the cocoon. But when the cocoon is opened by anything other than the butterfly, it is unable to fly and soon dies.
This happens because the butterfly must struggle and squirm it’s way out of the cocoon in order to strengthen and un-crumple its wings. Without the proper function of its wings, the butterfly is unable to fly to reach its food source–the nectar of flowers–and eventually dies.
While my actions and opinions are not always the best thing to help my loved ones, I can demonstrate my love and support of them by being present. This is far more difficult to do than offering advice, but more compassionate in the long run.
In order to stay present and avoid the temptation to butt-in to a loved one’s struggle, I take a deep breath and say in my head “All is well.” And I repeat that phrase as often as necessary until the impulse to interfere goes away.
These words bring comfort to me as I say them, and as I become less anxious, my presence (hopefully) becomes more peaceful to the person I am trying to support.
3. Voice appreciation that your friend/family member trusted you enough to share this with you.
This is a tool I learned from my friend Heidi. I noticed a while back that when I would share the details of a difficult with her, she almost always thanked me for sharing the situation with her.
After she thanked me, I felt like I had done something right. This feeling of “I did something right” created a feelings of gratitude and a newfound sense of hope that I would figure a way out of the situation where I felt stuck.
Although she did not offer any advice, by expressing her gratitude, she lessened the intensity of the struggle I was going through.
When a friend or loved one is going through a tough time, it’s hard to fight the temptation to give them advice and tell them what you think they should do. But I believe that what helps them more is to: be an active listener, use a mantra to avoid the temptation to give advice, and thank them for sharing their problem with you.
Is there a particular person who offers you comfort just by their mere presence?