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How to be Truly Helpful When Someone is Upset

When someone is upset, one familiar response is to ignore it and forge ahead. Another is to try to make them feel better with kind reassurance. Both of these approaches are a version of “make it go away.” There’s a third, more fruitful approach: Help them delve into it.

As the two people argued in front of me, I sat there, pitifully silent.

I opened my mouth to speak several times, but nothing came out.

I just couldn’t figure out what to say.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see movement from my coach, sitting far off to the right. She was looking at me intently. The look clearly conveyed, “Do something!”

Still nothing came out of my mouth, even as the discussion in front me grew more intense. And the more I couldn’t come up with the right words, the more frustrated and ashamed I grew with myself, leaving me more wordless than the moment before.

Finally, my coach stood up, stopped the mediation, and walked over to me. “What’s going on for you right now?” she asked.

I replied by bursting into tears.

It was 1997 and I was in my last term as a mediation student. I’d earned my doctorate a few years before and had returned to school for an additional year to study mediation and conflict resolution.

The mediation I was mangling so badly should have been well within my ability by that last term. My mediation teacher, Alice, whom I so wanted to impress with my skill and prowess, was the coach that day. Just my luck.

A little while later, I sat in Alice’s office, crying. And feeling embarrassed about crying, even as I cried harder. I was a college VP at the time, used to shouldering a lot in a day, and not one given much to crying.

Alice sat there quietly, doling out tissues. Her compassion was palpable, her attention fully on me.

But she wasn’t doing what I expected.

“I thought I was a capable person,” I said. “But I can’t mediate my way out of a cardboard box.” Sob, hiccup, sob.

Alice was quite noticeably not trying to make me feel better. There was no “It’s only a momentary rough spot” or “You’re just having a bad day.” There was no “Don’t worry, you are a good mediator” or “Even good mediators can get stuck.”

I wanted those kind of reassurances rather desperately, particularly from someone I wanted to impress.

Didn’t I?

But Alice did something else.

She asked gentle and probing questions to help me think and process: What was going on for you in there? Why do you think that was happening? Why do you conclude you can’t mediate worth a damn? Gee, it sounds like you came smack up against your own drive to be perfect…what do you take from that? What are you going to do with the learning from this awful experience?

Slowly, the weeping subsided as I worked through the questions Alice posed. Somewhere in the distance, a small ray of sun began to shine.

Those few minutes in Alice’s office taught me something about conflict resolution that I hadn’t understood other than intellectually: The way to help others who are struggling with a strong emotion or profound funk isn’t to make them feel better so that we can all move along. It isn’t to fix things for them or blindly tell them that all will be well. Really, who are we to know whether or not all will be well?

Well-meaning reassurance makes us feel helpful, but doesn’t really make us actually helpful.

The real succor for someone who is upset, as Alice knew and so exquisitely taught me that day, is in staying present with them where they are and helping them face, delve into, and discover what their discomfort is trying to tell them and protect them from.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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