For When You’ve Never Walked a Mile In Their Shoes

posted by Andrea | 04/2/2014

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Over the last couple of years dealing with Nora’s sleeping, eating, and sensory issues, we’ve gotten LOTS and LOTS and LOTS of advice, suggestions, ideas, tips, and even some criticism from many different people (even if we didn’t ask for it).

I totally understand — it’s human nature to want to fix problems for other people, but Dave and I have literally gotten to the point where we won’t even bring anything up unless it’s absolutely necessary or unless we’re with close friends and family.

We’ve also gotten REALLY good at just smiling and nodding :)

However, recently I received an email from a reader saying that she would like more guidance as to how to respond when a friend or family member comes to her with an issue or problem.

She asked:

What can women like me do to help? How can we, on the outside, encourage and lift up others? What, in the thick of it, did you need most from a friend?

Honestly, I had never thought about that before — but since ALL of us have various issues and problems we struggle with at different times in our lives, I figured this might a really good blog post topic.

I’ve thought about these questions, and I’ve outlined 7 ways NOT to respond when someone shares a concern or problem with you — as well as a few much more helpful responses.

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But before I even get started, I just want to point out that I have personally said and done EVERY SINGLE ONE of the things I say “not to say or do”. I’ve said and done them more than once and I guarantee I’ll say and do them again — not because I’m trying to be rude but because the responses below are very natural reactions when other’s share their troubles, problems, and insecurities with us.

Don’t feel bad if you’ve said and done all of the things I mention below — but do try to think about them in the future. Practice makes progress, and I can already tell I’ve gotten better at how I respond to others — especially when I know I’ve never walked a mile in their shoes.

when you've never walked a mile in their shoes

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1. Don’t try to “one-up them”.

There is nothing more frustrating than sharing a real concern with someone only to have them basically belittle your concern with a “bigger” or “better” concern of their own — or worse, a story from their past that they are remembering with “rose colored glasses”.

For example: 

Concerned Friend: “I never feel like I have enough time or energy to give to things — I’m not giving 100% to my family, my church, my job, my marriage, etc.”
Bad Response: “You think you’re busy with 1 kid and a part-time job, trying having 4 kids and working full time. I don’t even see my spouse.”
Better Response: “Wow, you have a lot on your plate! It sounds like you’re doing a great job though, don’t be too hard on yourself!”

Concerned Friend: “I’m so lonely, I  wonder if I’ll ever find the right person to marry.”
Bad Response: “Believe me, marriage isn’t all that great — my life is so stressful and busy with kids, a spouse, etc. I wish I could go back to my single days .”
Better Response: “I know this must be hard for you, but you’re such a great person. I’m so glad we’re friends!”

2. Don’t say “but at least”.

Yes, I realize there are many things we should be thankful for, but when I’m openly sharing my problems with you, I really don’t want you to just disregard them and change the subject by flippantly saying, “but at least”.

For example: 

Concerned Friend: “I’m really anxious and worried about a situation at work.”
Bad Response: “That stinks, but at least you have a job.”
Better Response: “I’m sure that’s very stressful for you and makes it hard to be excited about going to work each day.”

Concerned Friend: “My kids have been so difficult, I feel like I just need a break.”
Bad Response: “It does sound like they are being difficult, but at least you have a great husband.” Or “…but at least you were able to have children.”
Better Response: “I can’t even imagine how difficult it’s been for you these past few months; is there anything I can do to help?”

3. Don’t give unsolicited advice.

This is the hardest one for me and for most people because we naturally want to help… and when someone (especially a close friend or family member) comes to us with a problem, we want to fix it.

But unless the person SPECIFICALLY asks for your advice or your opinion, please don’t try to offer suggestions — it’s often very frustrating for the friend, especially if it’s an on-going issue.

For example: 

Concerned Friend: “I’ve been having such bad migraines for months, even the doctors can’t figure out the problem.”
Bad Response: “You should try ___________, it works for my headaches every time.”
Better Response: “That sounds awful, I’m sorry to hear that you haven’t found a solution yet.”

Concerned Friend: “I’m getting so frustrated trying to potty-train my child. He just doesn’t want to move out of diapers.”
Bad Response: “Have you tried _______? It’s what I did every time and it ALWAYS worked.”
Better Response: “Yeah, potty-training is the worst… you’re at the mercy of your toddlers which can be SO frustrating.”

Believe me, we’ve tried ALL those things you’re going to suggest and they DID NOT work for us — so by telling us that they work every time or they always worked for you makes us feel even worse!

4. Don’t respond with cliché phrases.

Oh the cliché phrases — there’s nothing that makes me want to punch someone in the face more than when they respond to one of my legitimate concerns with a cliché phrase like, “enjoy every moment” or, “there is a time and season for everything” or, “this too shall pass” or my favorite, “the days are long but the years are short.”

Yes, I realize that all those phrases ARE in fact true statements, and I’m totally fine joking about them in light-hearted ways, but if I’m in the thick of a hard time (especially a mentally hard time) and I honestly can’t see the end in sight yet, those phrases are really the last thing I want to hear!

For example: 

Concerned Friend: “My marriage has really been a struggle lately. I just feel like we have no time for each other and I’m not sure what to do.”
Bad Response: “You’re just in a busy season of life… this too shall pass.”
Better Response: “I’m sorry, is there anything I can do to help — like watch your kids so you can have a date night?”

Concerned Friend: “I just don’t think I can take one more day cooped up with my kids. The older two are sick and not sleeping well, and the baby had a growth spurt and is nursing every 2 hours round the clock.”
Bad Response: “The days are long but the years are short… enjoy every moment as you’ll miss these times when you’re older!”
Better Response: “Oh, I can remember those days. They were so frustrating and I thought they’d never end. Hang in there though, you’re a great mom and you can do this!”

 5. Don’t respond with “rose colored glasses”.

I feel like this response especially applies when a younger person is telling an older person about a problem or concern. It’s often easy for the older person to look back on life with rose colored glasses and forget how hard the hard times really were.

I’ve even had this issue when my younger siblings voice a concern to me — so no, you don’t need to be really old to fall into this trap :)

For example: 

Concerned Friend: “We’ve really been struggling financially lately, I just don’t know how we’re going to make ends meet this month.”
Bad Response: “I remember struggling when we were first married too — now I realize that was the best time of our life and helped us grow closer as a married couple.”
Better Response: “I know how stressful finances can be, I’ll keep your family in my prayers.”

Concerned Friend: “I’m so exhausted, I haven’t had a full night sleep in months since my baby wakes up every 3 hours.”
Bad Response: “Just wait, in a few years, you’ll look back on these times and wish you could go back.”
Better Response: “I can totally relate — sleep deprivation really sucks.”

6. Don’t respond with your own problems.

It’s one thing to be “relatable” by sharing an experience from your past or from your own life — but it’s another thing to completely change the subject and start burdening them with YOUR problems.

For example: 

Concerned Friend: “My husband just found out his job will be terminated next month. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Bad Response: “I know, this economy is so bad. My husband lost his job last month and he still hasn’t found anything. We’re just digging deeper into our savings account and putting more on credit cards.”
Better Response: “We’re in the same boat right now and it IS really hard. Let me know if you want to vent together.”

Concerned Friend: “My allergies have really been acting up lately — I can hardly breathe without my medication.”
Bad Response: “That reminds me, I need to bring my kids in to get a new allergy prescription. Their allergies have been so bad — I hate to see them suffer.”
Better Response: “Wow, sounds like your allergies are really bad. My kids also have allergies so I understand how frustrating this must be for you.”

7. Don’t respond by blowing them off.

Sometimes when we don’t know what to say, we try to change the subject or just blow off the issue like it’s really not a big deal — yes I’ve done it many times already!

However, this obviously doesn’t help the other person and it makes me look like a big jerk!

For example: 

Concerned Friend: “What a day, everything seemed to go wrong and I’m completely exhausted.”
Bad Response: “Oh well, tomorrow is another day.”
Better Response: “I can see/hear how tired you are. Is there anything I can do to help get your mind off of today.”

Concerned Friend: “I’m really worried about those medical tests. I haven’t slept in days because I’m so anxious to get the results back.”
Bad Response: “There’s nothing you can do about it now so there’s no sense worrying or losing sleep over the matter.”
Better Response: “I understand why you’re so anxious — it would be so hard to keep waiting.”

I could honestly go ON and ON and ON with different examples from each of these 7 ways “not to respond”… but I think you get the idea.

The point is that we ALL have issues, we ALL have struggles, we ALL have hard times, and for the most part, we ALL feel better if we can vent every once in a while — and when we vent, we just want to be heard and understood.

Obviously, there are situations when it’s not appropriate for people to vent to certain people (like a parent venting to a child about marriage issues or venting to a coworker about your boss) but in my own experience, sometimes venting (or just sharing your problems with someone else) is therapy in itself.

No, it doesn’t solve the issue or fix the problem, but it often makes me feel better, less stressed, and like I’m not totally alone (yes, this blog has been VERY therapeutic for me!)

When in doubt… say nothing.

Honestly, if you don’t know how to respond or you feel awkward because you don’t have experience with that type of a situation… just DON’T SAY ANYTHING.

DO just sit and listen.

DO give them a hug. (if it’s appropriate)

DO offer to pray for them or with them. (if you feel comfortable doing that)

DO ask them if you can help or how you can help.

Everyone’s situation and experiences are so different that it’s hard to say for sure what would be helpful for them — so that’s why you just need to ask. And when you ask, really listen to their response. Often people will say “nothing” or “we don’t need any help” but you can tell they are just crying out for someone to help them.

If you want more of an honest response, re-phrase your question and instead of saying, “How can I help?” say, “Do you want me to do ______ or  ______ or ______? What would help you the most?”

So the next time someone shares a problem or concern with you, stop and think for 3 seconds before you respond… especially if you’ve never walked a mile in their shoes! 

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42 comments

  1. Kjrsten

    04/04/2014

    Thank you. ;)

    [Reply]

  2. Jennifer

    04/04/2014

    This is great! I hope people are forwarding to many more people. We are all in a hurry and have our own struggles; it’s difficult to slow down and take time to thoroughly listen to someone and show some patience and sensitivity. Some people have never had supportive people in their lives and thus, they are short and insensitive with others. My mother was always like that. I am a counselor, and she can’t imagine why in the world I would want to be one. These are some great tips, especially for people who think they can’t respond well to others.

    Some teachers at the high school I work at freak out when a student mentions something personal to them and then send them directly to me. Talk about dismissal. Chances are they won’t go directly to me after just being cut off by another adult. I tell the teachers they don’t have to know the right words or advice–I don’t–they just need to listen and validate their feelings. Just say something back that let’s them know they were heard. Just a heartfelt, “Man, that’s tough,” goes a long way. There have been many times when I said not much more to a student, and later they came back to thank me and tell me how much better they felt. I don’t ever say, “You’re welcome,” or take any credit. I usually just say, “I’m glad you feel better,” but sometimes I try to inquire a little further if something deeper was going on and they seem more ready to go there. A teacher could start that way, and then encourage them to see the counselor if needed.

    Validation! Most of the time, that’s all people are seeking, and it’s so easy to provide if we’ll just listen and forget about ourselves for a few minutes.

    [Reply]

  3. Julie

    04/04/2014

    This is great! I’m sure we all say the “wrong” thing once in a while (some more than others), but we all need to be more thoughtful about what we’re saying. Such a great reminder! Thank you!

    [Reply]

  4. Patty@homemakersdaily.com

    04/04/2014

    This is a really great post. You’re right – we’re all guilty of saying these things at some time or another – but if would be better if we didn’t! I’ve been especially working on the one about not giving advice unless I’m asked. It’s hard because I love giving advice!!! But my daughter and daughter-in-law don’t always want it. Sometimes they just want to be heard.

    Anyway, thanks for the reminder and the encouragement.

    [Reply]

  5. Kerrie

    04/05/2014

    I can relate to so many of those! I have a toddler and am about to have baby #2 in a few weeks. I keep hearing “you think you’re tired now. Just wait” and “try having a baby who didn’t sleep for the first ___ years of their life.” I’m never sure how to respond, and I’m not sure if they’re trying to be funny, or just make conversation. It doesn’t usually feel like they are trying to encourage me by saying I will never sleep again, but it’s hard to know why people say the things they say.

    [Reply]

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