This story is part of How to Talk to Anyone, Forge’s guide to moving past the chitchat and truly connecting.
Shit. We’ve all been through some of it, have we not? I myself have been through some shit over the past 12 months. I nearly died. I lost all the hearing in my right ear. My 13-year-old watched her computer get infected with porny malware for the first time (truly a milestone for 21st century youth). I had to quit my day job a month ago. AND I overcooked a pricey strip steak I bought from Whole Foods. That all falls squarely into the category of Some Shit.
The good news, I think, is that Thanksgiving is here. I know this month you’re gonna drive by umpteen links to cursory blog posts about onerous holiday obligations and dealing with annoying relatives you’d rather not deal with. But for this post, let’s assume that you actually, you know, LOVE your loved ones and that you’re looking forward to seeing them.
Let’s also assume that they, too, have been through some shit. This is America. It’s designed to put you through some shit, even when you didn’t ask for any to get lobbed your way.
When I got hurt, I had no problem with people asking “Hey, how’s your brain?” the second they walked in the door.
It can be nerve-wracking trying to console someone who is living through the hell of chronic illness or unemployment or divorce or grief or some other element of the human experience that is, at its core, shitty. It’s hard to know what to say or what to do without making things worse. And it’s even harder to know what to do when your main priority is scoring some of the thigh meat off the turkey before it all gets taken.
That is why I, a professional blogger, am here to help. Who better to listen to, really? Here is a handy, and concise, amateur’s guide to comforting others in times of distress:
Read the room if you’re gonna bring up the bad shit
When I got hurt, I had no problem with people asking “Hey, how’s your brain?” the second they walked in the door. I had been hospitalized for over a month. It was an obvious topic of conversation, and I have a big fat mouth anyway.
HOWEVER, other people may be a bit more guarded about what they’re enduring. So take your cues when you walk in the door. A simple “How ARE you?” can address the elephant in the room without expressly doing so. Then, if they bring up the fact that they got hit by a bus, you know that avenue of conversation is open. But if they just start talking about the Detroit Lions, well, you probably have a good idea of where their head is at. Follow their lead.
Your advice is worthless
Advice usually benefits the person giving it more than the one receiving it. Take this column, for instance. I got paid to act like wise old Gandalf for this thing. You’re probably better off watching football instead.
For real, though, people who have been through some shit often exist in a perpetual fog of angst, which makes processing advice difficult at best and an added burden at worst. How many times did your folks give you advice — endless, lecturing advice — when you were lovelorn or depressed? How annoying were they when they did? I believe my point has been made.
Allow people to vent to you. This can be a difficult task because it can be hard to keep your own mouth shut (or, at least, it’s hard for me) and also because people in anguish can be, frankly, annoying. They don’t always make sense. They rehash what’s bothering them over and over. You can try to be supportive while, at the same time, quietly feeling like they’re being a fucking downer.
But that’s the work of listening. You’re there to absorb all of those grievances whether it’s a pleasant experience for you or not. You don’t even have to chime in with a courtesy “Well, that sucks.” What matters is that you make a real effort to listen and to remember everything they’re unloading on you. Don’t check your phone during this. People notice. Conversely…
Silence is fine
Talking is just one way to help people feel better. At times, I’ve tried too hard to listen to my loved ones, to the point where I’ve bordered on nagging them to tell me their problems. Not everyone wants to talk about what they’re going through. They may not even know how.
Sometimes, your mere presence is enough. The fact that they CAN talk to you, because you’re there, is a big deal even if they don’t avail themselves of that option.
This is a shitty comparison, but I like being around my kids without ALWAYS actively playing and socializing with them. I just want them THERE. Thereness is important. If it feels awkward to you, again, your sacrifice will be in tolerating that awkwardness to the point where it doesn’t feel so awkward anymore. Not all silence has to be uncomfortable. Have a glass of wine if you need it.
Share YOUR shit
Sometimes it helps to document your own problems to the problem-haver in question. It helps them know that they’re not alone in dealing with issues. It also might spur them into talking about what’s happening to them if they were reticent before. Give something of yourself, and people sometimes give something back. I do this trick when I interview people sometimes. It works, even if the transcripts are a fucking wreck.
When you offer help, make it specific
I learned this from my wife when I was laid up in a coma for two weeks last December. Anyone and everyone will tell you “If there’s ANYTHING I can do, just let me know.” This annoyed my wife. You mean well when you say it, but you just gave a woman in shock a fucking homework assignment. She doesn’t have the time to dream up tasks for you to do like you’re a pesky intern.
Think up specific ways of helping. “Do you need me to pick up your kids Tuesday night?” “You can borrow Dave’s car for as long as you need it to drive to the hospital and back.” “I actually know a doctor who treats this exact condition and takes insurance.” “You like gin, right? Here’s a case of Tanqueray.” Shit like that. The less you force people in need to think, the better. This is not optimal brainstorming time for them.
“LOOK OVER THERE!”
You’re the distraction. There’s no rule saying you HAVE to dwell on the bad shit, and you probably shouldn’t. There’s still more to this person than their current predicament, and they enjoy being reminded of that.
So if you’re getting signals that your best friend’s custody battle isn’t a welcome topic of conversation at the moment, swim with the current and offer an escape hatch instead. Talk about sports. Go to a shitty football game. Argue about Scorsese vs. Marvel. Whatever gets their mind off of what’s bothering them, go with them to that place. You could go drive go-karts! Who’s gonna hang their head about Grandpa dying when they’ve got a robust 30 horsepower right in their hands? Not me, baby. Sometimes the best way to get through some shit is to plow right through it! VROOM VROOM, BITCH.