This was first published on ksl.com
I was visiting with a good friend the other day and he finally admitted that his life has been really hard lately and he and his family are going through things I had no idea about. We talked about how often people are pretending to be OK and when you ask how they are they say “fine,” but they really aren’t fine at all. How can you get people to tell you the truth about what they are going through instead of always saying “fine”? Is there a good question I could ask people that would get to the truth and open them up?
It was author Brad Meltzer who said, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” And he is right, especially today, when many people are struggling with depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders or health problems. No family is immune from these kinds of serious challenges. You can assume everyone you know has something painful going on that they aren’t telling anyone about.
The reason we keep these challenges to ourselves could be that we fear judgment, criticism and looking bad. Some of us might not want to burden others with our heavy or dirty laundry, and we might not want pity or sympathy either. It just seems wiser and more practical to say we're "good."
If you want another person to open up and confide in you, then you are going to have to create a place that feels safe enough to do that. The other person has to know there will be no judgment and trust that you'll keep what they tell you confidential. They also have to know you won’t try to fix it or give them unsolicited advice, because that may not what they need.
What they might need is validation of their worth despite what they are going through. They may need validation about how tiring and difficult their challenge is and that it makes sense that they're struggling. They also have to know you will listen and not tell them what they should be doing differently.
Before you try to get another human to open up and tell you about their pain, you must be committed to honoring their right to be where they are and letting them know they still have absolute, infinite worth. You have to be prepared to validate without advising, fixing or giving them your take on the issue. In other words, it should stay about them, not about you.
Here's what I'd recommend saying when talking with a friend and have a hunch they aren't fine:
“If I could promise there would be no judgment and only unconditional love and support, would you be open to telling me about the hard stuff you and your family are going through? I promise I will just listen and be here. I’d really love to be that kind of friend to you.”
If they still don’t have anything to say, then that's OK. At least then they know if they ever do want a friend you are there. It sometimes helps if you are willing to open up and talk about some of your personal challenges, especially if you think they might be going through something similar. Your vulnerability and authenticity may encourage them to do the same.
If they do trust you enough to open up, then just listen. Don’t tell your story and how you got through. Don’t agree or disagree with anything they say (that would be making it about you). And don’t give advice or suggestions. One question that might help is, “What is the worst part for you?” When you ask that, you give them permission to go deeper and vocalize the depth of their pain.
If you really feel you can help and have some advice that could make a difference for them, ask for their permission to share it first. You could say something like, “Would you be open to a suggestion or idea around solving this? I don’t want to assume anything or infer that I know better, but if I had one bit of advice would you be open to it, or would it help you more if I just listen and be here?” In other words, give them a safe place to say “no thanks" if they choose.
You can do this.
Visit www.claritypointcoaching.com to learn more about Coach Kim Giles and take the Clarity Assessment, that helps you see where your fears and values are creating good and bad behavior in your life and relationships.
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Kimberly Giles is the president and founder of Claritypoint Life Coaching and 12 SHAPES INC. She is an author and professional speaker. She was named one of the top 20 advice gurus in the country by Good Morning America in 2010. She appears regularly on local and national TV and Radio.