Listening to Someone Facing a Bad Situation

I have a question and don’t know if you already answered something like it. How can you show support for someone without making it about yourself? like *someone talking about a crap thing that happened* *I answer with how a similar crap thing happened to me or someone I know* I just don’t know what to say other than “well that sucks”, but I always feel like that comes across as not caring (and so does my other approach tbh…)
realsocialskills answered:
    
It depends on the situation. What you’re describing sounds like the kind of situation in which listening might be the most important thing.
 
Sometimes what people need is not for you to say things. Sometimes, what people need is for you to listen to them. It can feel like you’re supposed to be filling the conversation with helpful words – but often, it’s much more helpful to create space that they can fill with the things they want to say. Often, it’s important to listen more than you talk.
 
One way you can create space is by saying things like (depending on the situation):
  • “That sounds hard”
  • “It sounds like things are really hard right now”
  • “It sounds like a lot of people are hurting you”

Another way you can create space is to just sit with them. There don’t always have to be words. Sometimes, pauses are important. Don’t try to fill all of them.

Another way you can create space is by listening to what they’re saying, and repeating part of it in a tone that indicates that you’re asking about it:

  • It’s somewhat hard to describe how to do this
  • Because formulaically repeating everything someone says is obnoxious
  • But if you choose well what to repeat, it can indicate that you understand what they’re saying, and that you want to listen to more of what they have to say
  • And then, you can respond with your own words when you have things to say that might help

Eg:

  • Susan: The crap thing happened to me *again*. 
  • Debra: Again?!
  • Susan: Yes. The people who do that thing always do the thing!
  • Debra: They always do it?
  • Susan: Yes, they do that every single day. Sometimes multiple times. I can’t get them to stop because they outrank me and if I complain I’ll be fired.

Sometimes, people want more from you than just listening. Sometimes, they want advice or practical support. It’s ok and good to offer it, but bad for you to try to take over the conversation with it.

For instance, say the conversation continued:

  • Debra: You’ll be fired?
  • Susan: Yes - the last five women who complained all got fired last month.
  • Debra: I know a good lawyer who does that kind of work - would you like their contact information?
  • Susan: Maybe. I’m not sure it would do any good though. I really can’t afford to lose this job.

Debra here thought that she knew something that might help, and offered it to Susan. Debra didn’t try to force it on Susan. This was a good way to offer support. Here’s a different way the conversation could have gone:

  • Debra: That’s illegal! You should totally sue them! I’ll tell my lawyer about this, they’ve done a lot of this kind of work.
  • Susan: I don’t think that’s a good idea - I REALLY can’t afford to lose this job.
  • Debra: Don’t be silly. The law is on your side. Don’t you want to protect other women from the crap thing they do every day?

Here, Debra isn’t listening to Susan. She thinks she knows best, and wants to push Susan into doing it. That’s not a good way to support others. Push come to shove, people need to make their own decisions, and trying to control them causes a lot of problems.

Sometimes it can work to relate things to your own experiences, but in a way that doesn’t take over the conversation. For instance:

  • Bob: This crap thing happened to me!
  • James: That sounds awful.
  • Bob: Yes, it is awful. And on top of that, they made it even worse by ___. 
  • James: I think something similar happened to me last year.
Here, James waits to see if Bob picks up that line of conversation, and reacts according to what Bob wants to talk about. Eg, say it went this way:
  • James: I think something similar happened to me last year.
  • Bob: What happened with you?
  • James: Related crap thing happened.
  •  Bob: Huh. What did you do about that?
  • (and then they continue the conversation, and talk about their shared experiences)

Another way this could have gone:

  • James: I think something similar happened to me last year.
  • Bob: Huh. Well, and then I yelled at them for doing the crap thing, and then I got in trouble for yelling!
  • James: You got in trouble for yelling at them?
  • (here, the conversation continues based on what Bob wants to talk about. Since Bob wants to talk about his experience and not James’, James shows support for Bob by dropping it and listening to him)

In short:

  • When someone wants to talk to you about something awful that happened to them, make sure you’re listening and not taking up all of the space.
  • If they want advice or practical help and you have some to offer, offer it. Don’t try to take over and tell them what to do.
  • If you have shared experience, offer to talk about it if it seems possibly welcome. Drop it if they want to talk about their own experience and not yours
  • If they just want you to listen, listen.
  • In any case, follow their lead and make sure it’s about supporting them.