When someone is expressing sadness, stress or grief over problems in their life it can be difficult to know how to respond. Truth is there are many ways you can respond, and it’s not always possible to know what the right way is. In one situation a person may need to have an empathetic ear, while other times they may need to be told nicely that they need to begin to pick themselves up. No matter what response is appropriate, it will require honest compassion. This highly touted spiritual trait isn’t something that comes easily. A simple, “I’m sorry for what your experiencing” without emotion is probably not enough if it is someone close to you. Compassion is empathy for other people’s suffering. Empathy takes understanding. Questions can help bring answers.
So what types of questions are necessary to build compassion?
What would it be like to be in their situation?
Asking this simple question may give an immediate answer. But sometimes it doesn’t.
Let’s examine the questioning process as if your friend called up crying because her cat died. It was her only pet, and she lives alone. You may love animals, and have first hand experienced the grief of an empty house, after your Siamese cat Pollyanna passed. If you are lucky enough to know what it’s like this question alone is probably enough to cultivate compassion to respond to your friends situation.
Maybe in reality you hate cats, and you have a spouse with three children. When the family dog died last year, the kids were torn up, but you may not really be an animal person, so grieving over Toto didn’t really enter the equation.
Instead of just focusing on what is it like to have an animal companion pass you need to ask the next question.
What is the larger picture and how does that affect things?
Many people forget to look at the larger picture. Some people respond with secret disdain for other people’s problems because they feel the person is over-reacting. In this case, so what if the cat died? Bury the darn cat, buy another. Problem solved. But when you look at the overall problem, Pollyanna wasn’t just a cat, she was a companion. She had a personality, and there was an emotional bond. The friendship with a pet is strong even in a multi-person household, never mind one where there is only one person.
If you found yourself feeling disconnected from their grief, it would be helpful to remember what it’s like to be alone and lonely. Look at situations that you’ve experienced with a common element. For people with busy houses that can be difficult, but we all experience loneliness sometimes. Remember what that was like to be really alone and have no one there to comfort you. Your friend does not have anyone else in the house. Pollyanna used to be a constant compassion, ever ready to head butt and meow her opinion. That voice would be gone.
What makes something a problem, is often not the issue itself, but everything else that surrounds the issue and what the problem affects. A cat dieing is bad enough, but let’s say your friend was also struggling to pay bills while she worked a job where she had a semi-abusive boss. Pollyanna would have been there to help combat the feelings of stress, anger and frustration. Without her, your friends problems will be magnified even if those situations don’t change.
After asking questions like these you can begin to cultivate true compassion. Not just a cold, I’m sorry, or this is how we are going to solve this. Compassion means responding in a way that is real and caring.
So what is the final question you will want to ask?
How would you want others to respond?
Once you have an understanding of what is going on, you will be able to better assess the gravity of the situation. This will help you decide if the person needs to be cheered, allowed to talk, or needs a pep talk.
It is okay to be honest to admit that you feel for the other person, but aren’t sure how to respond. That way if you’re wrong the person knows that you’re trying and not trying to be a prick when you begin to crack some unrelated jokes. I know I have been hurt very deeply by people who said absolutely nothing when I was having a problem. I really thought that they did not care. It was later revealed that it wasn’t the case, but the moment is when it’s most relevant.
Saying that you care, but don’t know what would be helpful is especially important in the case where you feel they need space. If you simply stop calling them, they may think you are avoiding them because you don’t want to hear their woes. If you say, look I’m not really sure how to help but if you want I’ll give you some space if you want, then they realize what you’re doing and allows them the chance to talk about their needs.
Combining these questions with open communication and listening ears to act compassionately can be the best gift you can give someone during times of problems. It brings the human element of empathy which can be a healing salve to an ailing heart. Some people get stressed listening to someones problems because they want to solve it, but can’t. You don’t always have to have a solution. There may be no solution. But listening sometimes is enough.
If there are any other questions that help you to act compassionately, do leave them in the comments. The world is a better place when we reach out to others in an honest, loving and most of all compassionate way.