This article is part of the series
This series is under development and further articles will be added soon.
Scenario number one.
About 2 weeks ago I was walking back late from a class, and encountered a Chinese kid who was also walking towards town. He was about 15 years old I think, and he seemed angry about something.
As we walked, a conversation began. He'd had some kind of blow-up with his mom and stormed off, and was trying to figure out where to go. He didn't like all his friends were still in China, he missed his dad, and he wasn't sure what to do about his family or school situation.
Tough times for the kid.
Through the walk, maybe 20 mins, I just listened 95% of the time. Occasionally I'd ask a question or make a comment, to clarify the situation, or to draw his attention to a particular aspect he might not be aware of.
In small ways, I encouraged him consider things from mom's perspective.
I really didn't need to do much- simply being there and letting him verbalize his problems helped him sort out what what bothering him, what he wanted to change, and what his options were right now.
And afterwards, I reflected, to learn what I could.
Scenario number two.
Nearly 3 months ago I had a similar experience, but with very different details.
I was waiting for a coaching client at a favorite spot in the local park and when I approached our meeting location, I could see a man off to the side who was very emotional. He was clearly struggling to hold back tears, and I'd guess they were a combination of shock, grief and anger.
I might be completely wrong, but I immediately guessed that he'd suddenly and unexpectedly lost something very important to him. Could be a job, but my guess was a relationship. There are few things that can shatter you to the core like that, and stir up so many intense emotions at once.
In this case, the man was sitting alone. Others could see him, and glanced curiously, but kept their distance.
I've learned to think differently.
I walked over near where he was sitting and sat maybe 5m away, where he could clearly see me. I just sat. After a few minutes of silence, I simply said...
"Seems like something really bothering you."
I said it slowly and clearly, and without looking at him. It seemed right to give him his privacy, while at the same time letting him know others were there to talk to.
There was zero response. Silence resumed after another eternity ( probably only 1 minute ), I said something else, like...
"Sometimes life is really tough..." ( long reflective pause )
"I've had a few life-crushing moments myself."
Still... zero response. I waited in silence just enjoying the park and the weather, worrying a bit that my client would show up and unintentionally derail the process. But who knows... might have helped even. I know that's just my control-side showing.
After a bit, I added more, testing my guess...
For me it's always been relationships. I really struggle when a relationship I'm deeply committed to goes bad.
It feels... traumatic.
I still hadn't turned to face the guy, but I could hear the sobbing pause a bit, while he struggled to recover his breath.
Finally he said...
"What did you do?"
I turned halfway towards him. Not directly, because he still seemed to be dangling over his emotional precipice. I didn't want him to feel confronted or overwhelmed, and keeping space felt important in this situation.
But, I'd also been invited to share more of my experiences, while at the same time feeling pressure- that my client would show up at any second.
So I shared the things I thought were most important.
I talked about how much better life was now, and how that relationship had never been the right one for me anyway.
How miserable I'd been in that relationship, without admitting it to myself.
I shared that my life now was better and happier than I'd ever felt in that relationship.
I shared that I'd learned to expect less from life and relationships, and appreciate them more. That life for me had shifted from something to control to something to experience.
More questions, more comments, more sharing.
The whole thing lasted maybe 20 minutes. At that point, my client was 15 mins late, and I needed to track them down. So I explained that I was meeting someone who was apparently lost, and excused myself to check my phone.
The man said "OK," and then suddenly stood up and walked away quickly.
It was so abrupt. Of course thoughts flooded through my mind... should I stop him? Is he a danger to anyone? Is he a danger to himself?
But as he hurried into the distance, I could also see that he was in a far better place emotionally. Whatever happened next would be more of a conscious choice than an emotional reaction. I hope they were good ones.
When these moments happen, I like to reflect on these situations to see what I can learn, and I do that usually by writing in by journal, or my blog, or recording a video.
I'm learning more right now as I write this.
Here's what I've Learned so far
Random situations are everywhere
But sometimes, we're blind or silent to them.
This kind of situation should probably happen in my life more often. It's not the first time I've passed random people on the street, that a conversation could have sparked with. It's not the first time I've seen a stranger dealing with challenging emotions.
So why is this not an everyday thing?
To put it simply, we usually have to be aware of it, and then open the door to invite conversation.
It's easy to say not my problem, or I'm not in the mood, or I've no time for this. But the reality is that most of us choose to live in a society together, and that means that what's happening to other people does affect us in some way - and time we invest helping others does have huge value to us, in improving our world, amplifying our awareness, understanding and skills - and maybe even in making us better people.
There are a lot of times I do not invite these conversations. Sometimes I'm just lost in my own thoughts, or too focused on my own immediate goals
I don't have time to talk, I need to do my grocery shopping...
But when I reflect back on those times I realize I missed an important opportunity there. A simple moment to practice empathy, or to show someone they're not alone, or even to learn something important for my own life and relationships.
How to open the door to conversation
In a situation like this, where someone needs to talk to someone, you usually don't have to do much. You rarely even need to be direct, like "hey what's bothering you?"
Deflating the balloon
Have you ever emptied an air mattress to store it away? You open the air release vent, and then just wait awhile.. let it scream a bit. Then you walk over parts that are still trapping air and help it that towards the vent. Then you roll it tightly from one end to squeeze out the rest of that air, and soon, it's empty.
It's the same process here, with emotions. Just being there can help someone deflate that balloon, particularly if they don't have a habit like journaling or meditation where they know how to release those emotions themselves.
What's left is understanding, and clear choices, and decisions to make.
The stranger advantage
It's a slightly weird effect to witness, but I often find that people are much more open when they don't know me personally.
There's a safety in that anonymity.
Most of us have a greater fear judgement from those close to us than we do from society as a whole, because those close to us are our security net. Push them away, and what's left?
You can encourage openness and vulnerability by being open and vulnerable yourwelf- sharing similar experiences.
Or, if you don't have any, you can just empathize.
Wow, I don't know how I'd handle that. That would be tough.
Don't expect appreciation
Most likely, your efforts to help someone will be appreciated by them later.
But right now, at the point you're there to help them, 100% of their attention is on their own problems. They're overwhelmed, stressed, emotional, and probably even feeling shame about their inability to master their emotions.
While they're in this emotional-survival mode, there's little space for them to show gratitude, or even basic politeness.
Respect that. We've all been in that place.
What if they become angry towards you?
A long-time BROJO member shared recently that he'd had an interesting encounter with a prospective house-mate, who was checking out his shared apartment.
The guy suddenly opened up about how Cyclone Gabrielle had destroyed his farm and home, and he and his girlfriend were suddenly homeless.
At some point, the guy seemed to become angry towards my friend, who was only trying to listen and help. I don't know the details, be it became aggressive to the point where it nearly came to blows in the front yard.
Before I share why I think this happens, I need to say this first
Always protect yourself. If you've ever seen someone reacting badly on drugs, there is a reality distortion effect, Emotions are massively exaggerated, and they can flip from one state to another instantaneously. You're a friend, now you're a threat, now you're nobody.
I've seen this in cult brainwashing victims, drug users and alcoholics- but aspects of this reality distortion are common to any situation involving intense emotions.
Someone doesn't need to be on a bad drug trip to be dangerous... they just need to have an emotional experience beyond their ability to control.
But why anger, towards someone who is trying to help?
Here's what I've seen in my own experiences...
They feel unfairly attacked by the universe.
When someone's life blows up unexpectedly, there's a tendency for them to act like a cornered, injured animal in that situation. Try to help them, you just might get bitten. At that moment their emotional brain feels too vulnerable and everyone is an enemy, because they have nothing left to give.
That's not on you, just be aware of it.
Rarely, I see that in coaching too, even though they are paying me to help. It's like going to the doctor to fix your broken arm, and then not wanting the doctor to touch it. We're all like that a bit, and the greater the pain, the more protectiveness you'll see.
They perceive judgement, or a lack of empathy.
When someone's life has exploded, the one thing that can immediately make it hurt more is judgement.
"Oh well, you must have deserved it."
And you don't even need to say those words. A lack of visible empathy or attention can be perceived as judgement- which is challenging because everyone expresses and perceives empathy differently.
For some people, simply stopping, listening, and giving their attention to someone is a huge expression of empathy. For others, it's kind words, an offer of assistance, or a hug.
If someone seems to be getting angrier towards you, and you're not sure why, call it out.
"Hey that really sucks, I don't know what I'd do in that situation."
And then share your confusion about how to respond,
"Look, this is a new experience for me. People don't usually share their problems with me, and I'm not sure how to help. Help me understand what you need here, and I'll see what I can do."
It's up to them to tell you what they need.
It's up to you to simply listen, and empathise, and maybe offer advice or assistance if they ask for it, and you choose to offer it.
But when it comes to helping people, this part is very important.
Always remember, your responsibility here is NOT to fix their problem, or even to hand them a solution. It's easy to do far more harm than good, no matter how well-intentioned you may be.
People need their challenges. No one ever grew stronger at a gym that has no weights. Your role is just to help anyone who is getting crushed by them, just like you'd need someone to help you.
If you have any role here, it's simply to help them deflate that balloon, and part of that is them walking away with the thought "hey the world actually cares about me."
They envy you
In some situations, their reaction may be based on envy.
For someone whose home just just been destroyed, they see you living comfortably and worry free. It's a stark contrast- a harsh reminder that they've lost every thing.
It's the same reason someone who's just had a bad breakup can't stand to be around happy couples.
It feels unfair, like a tornado that skipped 5 houses just to tear apart yours.
Think back on encounters like this that you've had.
What happened? What did you learn? How would you approach them differently?
The thing that will blow your mind is to realize that as many as 50% of the people you pass on the street are dealing with some kind of tough emotional shit about something, and don't even know how to start that conversation.
For most of them, these areas are just walled off, even from themselves. It's only once in awhile that we see those emotions bust to the surface.
Developing awareness and the practice of empathy is a powerful social skill. Not just as a member of society, but in your love life, friendships- even at work. Clients will connect so much more when they discover they can be emotionally open and safe around you. It's a pretty special thing.
This article is part of the series
This series is under development and further articles will be added soon.
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