How To Respond When Someone Is Hurting: 3 Dos and 3 Don’ts

By Holli Kenley

It is really difficult to know how to respond when someone is hurting.  Whether an individual has experienced a recent death or a traumatic event, or is struggling with painful relationships or serious health issues, we often find ourselves saying the wrong thing or not saying anything at all for fear of saying the wrong thing. And yet, most of us want to be a source of comfort.

Let’s take a look at how to respond when someone is hurting. Although there is much to say on this topic, for our purposes let’s consider implementing “3 Dos and 3 Don’ts.”

First Do: Short Statements. Be Still and Listen. Offer Yourself

This First Do is so simple. Gently approach an individual and begin with two short statements.

  • Acknowledge your understanding of the situation.

Example: “I recently found out that your uncle passed away.”

  • Express your emotion. Keep it short and sincere.

Example: “I am so sorry.”

There is no need to say anything more.  Be Still. This is the tough part.  Silence can be uncomfortable. Let it be. Silence provides room for the hurting person to share if she chooses.  If the person starts sharing, Listen. Look into her eyes. Give her your full attention. Your cues for how to respond further will come from what she shares.

If very little is said or when she is done, Offer Yourself in ways which are representative of your relationship. For example:

“Is there anything I can do for you?”

“I’m wondering how I can be of help to you?”

“I’m here for you.”

“How can I support you?”

Give the hurting person plenty of time to think and respond.  Let her guide the conversation. Remember, keep the focus of the conversation on the one who is hurting.

First Don’t: Asking “How are you doing?”

When someone has just received a terminal diagnosis or has lost their life-partner, asking “How are you doing?” is extremely awkward.  And yet, we ALL do this. Don’t feel badly.  Because we are feeling nervous or unsure of our words, “How are you doing?” just slips right out.

That is why it is so important to plan ahead what you want to say. And, get comfortable with saying very little.  Be Still. Listen. Offer Yourself.

Second Do: Be Empathic

Empathy is incredibly healing and validating. Empathy means the ability to understand what the other person is feeling and to reflect that in your expressions.  This is where is gets a bit tricky. If we have experienced what the other person is going through, we can express empathy around an understanding of our shared suffering.

For example,  few months ago, my hair-stylist’s father suddenly passed away. He was quite young and it was unexpected. She was devastated. Although I purchased a card and left it with the salon, I didn’t see her until just a couple of weeks ago.  After my manicure was done and I was leaving the salon, she approached me.

“Holli, thank you so much for the lovely card.  The poem you placed inside was beautiful.”

I looked into her eyes and replied, “I’ve been thinking of you. I lost my father over four years ago and I understand the pain you must be feeling. The poem I shared with you helped bring me peace.”

Her eyes watered, as did mine. She whispered softly, “I was able to say a few important words to my dad before he passed. I, too, feel at peace.”

On the other hand, if we have not experienced what the other person is going through, we want to make sure that we tap into an understanding of their emotions but not the experience itself.

A recent example illustrates this point. A friend of mine continues to rescue her adult daughter who has struggled for years with alcoholism. Recently, the chaos caused by her daughter has been affecting my friend’s health and her relationships with other family members. Because it is not ethical for me to act as her therapist nor would it be truthful for me to assume that I know what she is experiencing, I respond with empathy by connecting to her emotions. Examples include the following:

“It sounds like you are really torn between helping your daughter and taking care of yourself.”

“It must be very hurtful when your other children pull away from you.”

“I’m sensing that some of your health issues are really concerning you.”

The second example takes a little more skill and practice. However, remember to connect with understanding the feelings rather than the experience. The hurting person will feel your compassion and appreciate your concern. Again, keep the focus on the other person.

Second Don’t: Making A Comparison

One of the most common mistakes we make when we are struggling with how to respond to someone who is hurting is to make a comparison to our own experience. It’s easy to do. We are uncomfortable with the other person’s suffering and so we think by sharing our experience, it will make them feel better. When I connected with my hair-stylist by sharing an empathic understanding about my father’s passing, I kept it very brief. We must avoid taking over the conversation with our experience. All this does is over-shadow what the hurting person is feeling and experiencing. Sadly, many folks take this practice to another level by highlighting their experiences as being much more complicated and deserving of more attention.

The other day I was sitting in a doctor’s waiting room.  Two female seniors were sitting next to me discussing their ailments. One individual was seriously ill.  The other had some minor issues. However, as soon as the critically ill senior began sharing her situation, the mildly ill person jumped right in, made the conversation all about her, and magnified her minor disturbances. The more fragile senior not only seemed annoyed but she also looked as though a wave of fatigue had engulfed her.

We never want to diminish what a hurting individual is going through. It is important to remember that even if what we are going through is more painful, difficult, chronic, and serious than what the hurting person is experiencing, there is nothing comforting when someone else’s suffering is minimized or measured in comparison to ours.

Third Do: Reach Out and Remember

One of the saddest comments I often hear from folks who are hurting or who have gone through a painful experience is how quickly people forget and move on with their own lives. This, again, is understandable. We all do this.  We are busy with our families, jobs, and friends.

However, it just takes a minute to text, send an email, or make a quick call! And, we can keep it short. Example phrases include the following:

“Hey, I just wanted you to know I’m thinking of you.”

“I’ve had you on my mind for the past few days. I’m wondering if you are feeling better?”

“There’s been so much going on, but I wanted you to know that I think about you every day. Can we have coffee soon?”

“I was out in the garden the other day.  I thought of your dad and how much he loved gardening. You must miss him very much.”

Most folks don’t want us to wallow in their pain or to pity them.  However, they do want us to remember.  They do want us to reach out and let them know we still care, especially after time has passed.

Third Don’t: Avoid or Ignore

Because we don’t want to say or do the wrong thing when individuals are hurting, we often avoid bringing up the conversation or we ignore them completely. It’s easier, on us.  However, this often compounds their grief, isolation, and loneliness.  If we find we are distancing ourselves from those who are hurting because of our discomfort, take a deep breath. Begin by Reaching Out. Then, start the conversation with Short Statements. Be Still and  Listen. Offer Yourself.  Lastly,  connect with and comfort them by Being Empathic.

In closing, I’d like to leave you with two more Dos: one for the helping person and one for the hurting person.

First, if you are in a relationship with someone who has been stuck in their hurting place for a very long or whose situation is chronic in nature, it is wise to shore up your boundaries and make sure you are taking good care of yourself. We want to be available for others and support them as much as we are able. However, this is important.

When the needs of hurting individuals becomes greater than our capacity to give, step away and strongly encourage them to reach out for professional support, guidance, or services.

Secondly, if you are hurting person and  a helping person says, “How are you doing?” Take a deep breath. Remember, the individual means well.  Also, remember that it is important to be honest.  Most folks respond, “I’m okay.”  And they are not.  Try using a thee step technique that works quite well.

Feel. Why. Need.

  • Step One: Answer the question truthfully, “How you are feeling?”

For example, “Well, I’m struggling quite a bit.”

  • Step Two: Explain why, briefly.

For example,  “It really has been hard since my partner and I ended our relationship. I miss him terribly.  I really miss his companionship. I’m feeling lonely.”

  • Step Three: Talk about what you need.

For example,  “I  would love to get out a bit more.  Would you have time for coffee or lunch one day next week?”

Each of these Dos takes so little time and the Don’ts are easily remedied.

In our responses, let’s step out of our comfort zone and  help hurting folks ease into theirs.

Publisher’s Note: Holli Kenley is an American Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the author of “ Daughters Betrayed By Their Mothers: Moving from Brokenness to Wholeness” and “Power Down & Parent Up!: Cyber Bullying, Screen Dependence & Raising Tech-Healthy Children 

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