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Supporting others in a crisis

March 23, 2020

My son’s GCSEs have been cancelled. The goal he’s been focused on for two years has disappeared overnight. The structured routine and security of going to school with his friends has ended.

I can no longer solve his distress with a plaster, a hug and some reassuring words. But neither does he really need me to. People don’t need us to fix their problems for them – they need our support so they can manage their feelings and deal with it themselves. 

Here are some things you can do to support loved ones when you’re feeling about as useful as a chocolate teapot.

Unprecedented challenges

We’re at the end of the most surreal week of many people’s lives. Measures to slow the spread of coronavirus have kicked in. People are suddenly isolated, losing their jobs, adapting to working or learning at home. Those in key sectors such as health, education, food supply and utilities are working flat out to keep essential public services running.

3 practical ways to support people in crisis

Here are three specific ways you can support people during this – and any – crisis, and in focusing on others, you will find a purpose which will help you regain some sense of control too.

1. Listen with as much attention as you can

Listen to people with all the attention you can muster. Notice the words they are using, their facial expressions and their body language. Pay attention to how you are feeling in response – our body language and emotional reactions mirror other people’s and are good signals to how someone else is feeling. 

Try not to say too much: allow them to speak or be silent as they need. People can’t start working out how to deal with a problem until they have released strong emotions such as fear, guilt and anger.

2. Acknowledge how people are feeling

Acknowledge people’s feelings and fears without adding your own opinions or passing judgement. One way to do this is to use their words, for example, if they say “It’s utterly hopeless, I can’t see a way to go on” you might respond “You’re feeling hopeless.” Reflecting back like this lets people see or hear their reality more objectively so they can start to come to terms with things.

Avoid bringing it back to you with phrases like “I know how you feel, I …” or dismissing them “You don’t really mean that.” Once people feel heard and acknowledged, they can redirect their emotional energy into more practical problem solving.  

3. Ask questions gently 

Ask questions sensitively to help them understand their situation and feelings more fully and break down their challenges: “How do you feel about…”, “What are you going to miss most?”, “What are your three main concerns right now?”

When they are ready – and that might be in a later conversation – encourage them to see things from different perspectives. “What would you do if money was not an issue?”, “How might yourson/dad/employer see the situation?”, “What are the plus sides to this?”. 

Only then will they be ready to find solutions and again, you can use questions to help them explore options, generate new ideas, and make plans: “Who else could benefit from your services right now?”, “What has to happen, and what can be left for now?” 

Appropriate questions asked at the right time can unlock insights, perspectives and ideas to help people move through and beyond their current crisis.

Build confidence and belief in someone’s self-reliance

The steps above are the basics of many listening professions including mine: coaching. At the heart of coaching is the belief that people already have the answers within themselves. Giving your full attention to loved ones to let them talk about their situation without fear of judgement is hugely beneficial. Whilst it’s hard to accept you can’t fix someone else’s problems, you are encouraging responsibility and self-reliance which grows their confidence and belief in their ability to get through hard times now and in the future.

So for now, I’m off to give my son a right good listening to, trusting that he and the class of 2020 will be more resilient to future challenges in life because of their experience right now.

About me

I’m Celia Clark. I’m a career development coach based in the dreaming spires of Oxford. I help you think clearly about your job, in all its ups and downs, so you can be happy and successful in your work.

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