A few months ago, I was in the waiting room at the dentist and saw a 2-year-old boy and his father. The child fell off a low chair and came to his father, crying. “It’s no big deal,” said the father. “You’re not hurt.” But the child kept crying.
When people we care about are upset, our instinct is to try to fix things by changing how they feel as soon as possible. In fact, the closer we feel to the person, the more likely we are to give unsolicited advice. It rarely works. When people are upset, they can’t take in new information. They need to calm down first, and to do that, they need to process what they’re experiencing with someone who respects them and cares about them. This is as true for children as it is for adults.
You can provide this wonderful service by doing a simple thing: Listening closely and saying back what you got, without adding any interpretations, advice, or promises. Say back what you understood, to check if you got it right, and listen to what they say next. Keep doing this until they seem less upset and more thoughtful. By that point, they will be feeling much better. If you want, you can give advice, but you’ve already done them the most important service of helping them feel heard and accepted.
For example, several weeks ago, when we were just starting to get used to the idea of sheltering at home, I was talking by phone with a friend, a scientist in his late 20s. He was upset.
“It’s just so strange to stay home all the time,” he said to me. “It’s not like there are bombs going off outside. And at the same time, I’m also really afraid, because we don’t really know what to do against the virus. You know?”
I took a breath, digesting what he just shared, and then said it back to him: “It’s like there’s this invisible enemy, the virus. It’s hard to be afraid of something we can’t see. But at the same time, it could be anywhere, and we don’t know how to defend ourselves.” My friend said, “Yeah, exactly! It feels good to be able to articulate this. Thank you, I feel much better.”
My friend did not need me to give advice or to promise that things will be OK. He just needed me to be there, show that I care, and help him process what he was experiencing.
The next time you’re talking with someone who is upset:
Don’t give advice or promise everything will be OK.
Do listen closely to show how much care and respect you have for that person, without trying to quickly change their mood. You will be surprised at how much better they will feel — and how much stronger your connection will become — if you simply offer your loving presence.