What Should We Say to Help Struggling Loved Ones?
Jonathan Swinton, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist - June 15, 2011
Unhelpful things we may say include:
* Telling them that everything will be ok in time. They may benefit from hearing this later, but telling them at the front end may make them feel that you are minimizing how difficult things feel right now.
* Saying that you understand because of a similar struggle you or someone you know has been through. Even though you may think your experience will help them not feel alone in their trial, it may make them feel that you are comparing your struggle to theirs. It makes you the center of attention rather than them.
* Telling them that everything happens for a reason. When things are difficult the last thing someone needs to hear is that what feels horrible is good for them.
* Sharing your thoughts on what they can learn from the situation. They don’t need a lecture. This puts you in a position of superiority. They need you to take a one-down position, not a one-up position.
* Telling them what they can do to make the situation better. They haven’t yet sought your advice. What they want now is your listening ear. There will be plenty of time to offer advice later, but wait until they ask for it.
* The key to helping someone when they come for help is to listen and validate what they are feeling. Don’t try to solve the problem. Don’t offer unsolicited advice. The natural tendency is to give the loved one solutions or a different way of looking at the struggles they are facing. We wrongly assume that if we show them how to solve those problems that they will feel better. It typically does not help. Often all that is wanted is a listening ear. For example: if your spouse complains about a stressful day at work, they likely don’t want you to tell them all the things they could do to make it less stressful. They may only want you to listen and validate what they are feeling. It’s best just to sit in the mud with them for a while. Lick their wounds with them. Often, that is all that someone needs when they are struggling – to know someone recognizes how difficult things are for them.
Christ masterfully demonstrated how to listen and validate. In the well known story of Lazarus’s death (John 11), we are told that “Jesus loved Martha, [Mary], and Lazarus”. Lazarus died and Christ came to comfort Mary and Martha. “When Jesus therefore saw her weeping… he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled, and said, where have ye laid him? They said unto him, Lord, come and see. Jesus wept.” Before he offered advice, before he told them things would be ok, before he raised Lazarus from the dead, Christ groaned in the spirit, he was troubled, and he wept with them. He didn’t solve the problem right away. The first thing he did was to sit in the mud and mourn with those that mourn. That is what our loved ones need; someone to weep and mourn with them. Unlike the story of Lazarus, there may not be a happy ending for our loved ones, and knowing someone appreciates how difficult things are can be enough for someone to feel some level of resolution or peace on the issue. They need our listening, loving ear.
Here is what you should do to help:
* First: Listen and validate their feelings.
* Second: Weep with them. Mourn with them.
* Third: After listening, validating, and mourning with them, they may seek your advice. It is appropriate to offer advice at this time. Waiting until they ask may also make them more likely to follow your advice. However, sometimes feeling heard and validated is all that is needed to “solve” the issue.
Visit the Swinton Counseling website for a simple checklist of the to-do’s and not-to-do’s when helping a struggling loved one.
Is there a marriage or family relationship issue that you would like our relationship expert Jonathan Swinton to address in future columns? If so, send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jonathan Swinton is an LDS Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and is available to provide marriage and family therapy services and weekend couple retreats at Swinton Counseling: 801-647-9951, www.swintoncounseling.com.