We’ve all been there.
You’re in the middle of a difficult conversation with someone who’s sharing something emotional and we open up our mouths and stick our foot right in.
Without even meaning to, we’ve said the absolute wrong thing.
As people, we tend to be “fixers”. In the midst of a difficult or awkward conversation, our instinct is to try and say something comforting or to ease the tension. And while there is nothing wrong with wanting to do it, the “how” part of the execution is what really matters.
Check this out:
Imagine this scenario:
You’re at work and your colleague is upset. Maybe it was a bad day at the office, maybe there is stuff going on at home. Either way, you want to be supportive.
You go over and check in with them, and ask if everything is ok.
Your colleague starts sharing a story about something really yucky that happened to them that morning on their way to work, and they’re having a hard time shaking it.
Now here’s where the “fixer” thing can be a problem.
Problem #1: You Steal the Show
You want to commiserate and show empathy, so you start telling them all about a time where that same thing happened to you and then you rattle off what you did to handle the situation.
On the one hand, perhaps your little anecdote could be helpful, but in the moment your intentions may come off otherwise. Because in the course of a few moments, you’ve gone from being a comforting ear to the star of the show.
By taking over the conversation, you are creating a situation where the other person may end up feeling dismissed or invalidated. And once those feelings are there, you’ve instantly created a barrier to building (or continuing) a trusting relationship with that other person.
Despite all the best intentions in the world, our choice of words and our timing matters.
Problem #2: We Are Dismissive
Another pitfall we can run into is telling people their feelings are not appropriate.
Have you ever shared something difficult with someone and their responses sound like this?
“That’s just silly.”
“You must have misunderstood.”
“I’ve had that happen and it didn’t bother me.”
The most likely outcome of those statements is the person on the receiving end feeling completely and utterly invalidated. Because is there anything worse than sharing something with someone and being told our feelings don’t matter?
And to possibly make matters worse, you have someone already feeling not-so-great about a situation and now you’ve added a layer of doubt about whether their authentic feelings are ok.
The reality is, your feelings are your feelings. No one needs to be told why their feelings are not legitimate or how someone else managed to not feel the same thing. It’s pointless, and depending on the situation you may have made that person even more upset than they were in the first place.
So how do we avoid these gaffes?
It’s simple. It all comes back to holding the space.
Holding the space means you don’t need to share your opinion or stories at that very moment. You sit, you listen, and you show your calm and compassion by not saying anything at all.
Try it out and I promise you won’t regret it.