The Environment: Select an environment that is private, comfortable and quiet without being sterile. To me this means a place where conversation can’t be overheard and where there are few distractions. Potential distractions are everywhere: glare from lights that are too bright, reflections from mirrors or glass panes, motion caused by hectic passers-by, or the incessant drumming of a fan or air conditioner. Internally, other distractions may be occurring: obsessive thoughts, voices, feelings of self-consciousness, preoccupation with fear, mania, or despair. It can be extremely difficult for the person needing support to concentrate on the conversation due to internal and external background stimuli.
Please do not take someone’s lack of attentiveness as intentional or rude behavior. Neither does it indicate disinterest. It is likely that the inattentiveness is symptomatic. The person receiving support may find it extremely energy consuming to pay attention to a conversation when first he or she must screen out other stimuli. If not addressed, fatigue may be followed by irritation, frustration, hostility, and perhaps, defeat. She or he may escape as a form of self-protection by withdrawal or leaving.
The Conversation: Try “It’s good to see you” rather than “How are you?” At times, the “how” question is confusing because there is no clear answer. We may not know ourselves. The question may be disorienting as we may be overwhelmed by the act of socializing or flooded with stimuli and need to attend to getting our bearings before conversing.
“How are you?” is not a simple question! Many of us have a long history of lying in response. Why? Well, it can seem superficial. And too often we fear your question really means: Do you have a job now; are you better (fixed”), did you finish school. If life has been on hold due to a stigmatizing illness, a person may have no comparable experiences to share; few or no common successes to offer.
“I’ve been thinking about you,” is another alternative. It is welcoming and shows your concern. A reply other than “Thanks” is not needed. The person you are supporting has the opportunity to adapt to the surroundings before working on a conversation.
Keep the communication simple. Please use short clear sentences. Long sentences are hard to track. I cannot emphasize this point enough. Silence presents a golden opportunity, although it may be uncomfortable at first. It’s best to wait for the person needing support to take the lead. Some encouraging warm approaches are: “What would you like to tell me?” “I’m willing to listen to whatever you want to share with me”; “What would you like to talk about?” Be sure to give the person adequate time to reply. It may take a few minutes for thoughts and feelings to get sorted out. Remember to reflect concern and empathy. This is not the time to criticize or debate.
Above all, the most important contribution you make as a support person is sharing the emotional burden, even temporarily. You’ve taken part of the heavy weight. You’ve also told the person, by your listening and presence, that they are not alone, that you and others care. What a terrific gift! I know, I’ve been there. The gift of true support is priceless.
Go back to: Providing True Support (Part One)