Reality Check: Lost for Words?

Some people instinctively know the right thing to say in difficult situations. And then there are the rest of us; we who struggle to find words when the going gets tough.
Sadness, illness or loss will likely visit us and the people we love at some point. When it happens, it can be hard to know what to say. Combine that uncertainty with a fear of making things worse and some of us would rather avoid saying anything at all. Better to be quiet than hurtful, even inadvertently.
As an example, let’s say that our friend Lynn is going through a difficult time in her life. We want to provide some kind of support and encouragement.
The suggestion I’m offering here is likely most helpful for people who value lists. If you like checklists and to-do lists, then consider coming up with a “checklist” for this difficult situation.
There are various checklists we could use, but as these columns are primarily focused on the work of Dr. William Glasser, I’ll suggest his five basic needs as our foundation. According to Glasser, those basic needs are security/survival, love/belonging, power, freedom and fun.
How would this checklist work? Think about how we could support Lynn in terms of each of those needs. For example, might she be worried now about her security/survival? Is there anything we can offer there?
Is Lynn missing a sense of love and belonging? If she is separated from people she loves, then we might focus on actions to help her feel connected. A small caution here—everyone doesn’t enjoy big gatherings. Offering your time, companionship and attentive ear may be more helpful than organizing a get-together that could pressure Lynn to interact when she doesn’t feel up to it.
Many changes can threaten our sense of power and independence. If Lynn feels anxious with a loss of control, then she may not be satisfying what Glasser refers to as our need for power. Can we contribute to her sense of control? Is she persistent, resilient, a problem-solver? If so, it’s worth mentioning those traits. We might remind Lynn that she has worked through changes before. It’s easy to forget what we have managed to overcome in the past when we are struggling with the present. We, her friends, can help reassure her.
Freedom is another need. If the situation has Lynn feeling trapped by commitments, is it possible for us to offer her a few hours “off.” Knowing that she has a break to look forward to could help satisfy Lynn’s need for freedom.
Finally, don’t forget the need for fun. Fun might seem frivolous when in serious situations, but fun can be a very useful distraction. You don’t need to be a stand-up comic (although some gently funny movies could help.) Make your own fun, share activities Lynn enjoys. You can even dress up the dog if that’s what it takes to bring a smile to Lynn’s face. Fido can take one for the team.
This list of needs isn’t a magical solution for every difficult situation. However, being prepared with such a list could move you away from the emotion of the moment and toward practical actions and helpful words.
What do you say in difficult situations?

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