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When a Door Closes: How to Talk to a Friend in Pain

Lately, most of us know someone who has had a door close or a change thrust upon him or her as a result of the economy’s “domino effect” on our lives  – our finances, family, work, relationships, and health.

We search for ways to talk respectfully to a friend who’s feeling the pain, whether due to normal life events like children leaving the nest or more shocking ones like job loss or family illness.  These conversations have popped up at every social and work event I’ve attended recently, and I’ve been listening to how friends talk with friends about loss and stress.

Here’s what I’ve learned from those who seem to say and do it best.  As always, your feedback is welcomed!

1. Verbalize that you care and respect them. “I’m sorry to hear that. Thank you for telling me.” Follow that with an empathy-statement such as “I’m sure this must be hard.” or ask a nonthreatening yet caring question such as “How are you doing so far?” (Note: An advice columnist recently recommended saying, “I don’t know what to say,” when people share bad news. I couldn’t disagree more. Saying that you don’t know what to say just sounds dumb.)

2.Accent the positive. Consider this response from one of my students at Columbia College Chicago when a classmate shared news of ending a volatile wedding engagement: he said, “I’m sorry slash good for you.”Yes, he said the word “slash” aloud – a great way to acknowledge both sides of the situation.

3. Remind them of life’s nuances that are universal. “Life has its twists and turns.” This is quoted directly from an email from my “seventy-something” cousin Lynnie in Cleveland – the truth!  I like the way the statement covers a lot of ground in a simple way.

4.Don’t just ask what you can do.  Do something – fast!  Quick response time is important here. After someone shares his or her pain, send an immediate note in the mail, get a list of resources to him or her that same day, or get a date on the calendar within 30 days. Make sure you keep the date; it’s important now.  If the person sells something, buy it. If they have a hobby, do it with them. The world is full of countless never done “What can I do’s?”

5. Don’t fuel the Internet rumor mill. If you hear a rumor about someone’s job loss, loss of home, or change of life circumstances, don’t pass it around the net.  It’s best to wait for the person to share the news with you, of course, but if you’re a close friend you may feel like taking more initiative.  In this case, call the person or send a private email to voice your concern, “Was thinking of you. Is all going well? ‘ or ‘Haven’t talked to you in awhile. Is all OK?” A colleague who recently divorced was honored when an old friend sent him this email: “I heard a rumor last night and I wondered if there was any truth to it. May I call you today?”

If we can help our friends, simply by knowing us – all the better: Carly Simon’s 1974 song lyrics say it well:  Now I haven’t got time for the pain; I haven’t got room for the pain; I haven’t the need for the pain; Not since I’ve known you…”

P.S. Another great source for connecting through conversation is run by a really nice guy who attended my session at the 2009 NSA convention, Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. Then, Loren and I discovered a shared love for the art of conversation. He’s devoted a business to it!

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