How to Talk to a Loved One in Pain

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Earlier this week, Austin had its second annual "Hi, How Are You?" Day, a name taken from Daniel Johnston's 1983 folk album and the well-known frog mural at the corner of Guadalupe and 21st Street. The Day every January 22 is meant to remind us to check in on our friends and neighbors. It can be hard, however, to know what to say to a loved one in pain. The right words often elude us, leaving both sides unsatisfied with the conversation.

In my experience, there is one guiding principle that unlocks the conversation: stay with the curiosity. It sounds obvious, but oftentimes a promising discussion ends abruptly with well-meaning statements like, "I'm sure things will get better," "You'll be fine in the end," or "Everything happens for a reason." Statements like these can make your loved one feel like you want to end the conversation or that you are uncomfortable with the topic, when in reality you want to listen and help.

So how do you successfully talk to your loved one who is hurting? It can be helpful to start with something simple such as "Hi, How Are You?" or something a little more specific, like:

  • "You don't seem like yourself. Is everything okay?"

  • "I haven't talked to you in a while. How are things going?"

  • "I'm sorry to hear about X. How are you doing?"

The next part is often where it gets difficult. When their response indicates something is wrong, we tend to get nervous, clam up, or feel at a loss for words. It is hard and takes skill to hear about someone else's pain. That's where the curiosity comes in. Instead of immediately offering reassurances along the lines of "I'm sure it will be fine," which could end up turning them off from the conversation, try these:

  • "What has that been like for you?"

  • "Tell me more about that."

  • "Then what happened?"

Another strategy for a successful conversation is to simply repeat what you hear. For example, if your loved one tells you, "I'm really stressed out right now," echo that back.  It could be with something as simple as, "So, you are feeling really stressed." Typically, your loved one will respond with "Yes," and keep sharing.  Anytime you feel the conversation stall, you can simply repeat what was said. The other person knows you are listening, feels heard, and often will keep talking.

Finally, don't forget to validate your loved one’s feelings. If they share something painful, communicate that you understand and want to hear more about their pain or problem. This could look like:

  • "That does sound hard. I can see why you are stressed out."

  • "That makes a lot of sense to me."

  • "I see where you are coming from."

Communicating with your partner, friends, and family successfully is a skill, and like all skills it can be sharpened. If your loved ones are dealing with stress, depression, anxiety or other emotional issues and you are struggling with communication, contact Embark today so I can help you sharpen those skills. 

And read more about Austin's "Hi, How Are You?" Day here.