What to Do When Bad Things Happen and We Don’t Know How We Should Respond

“Say anything that expresses what you recognize to be true.”

Monica Worline is a Research Scientist at the Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism, a Faculty Affiliate at the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations, and the author of Awakening Compassion at Work. She recently joined Kelsey Crowe, co-author of There Is No Good Card for This and founder of Help Each Other Out, for a conversation on how to get past the emotional roadblocks that keep us from connecting, both in our personal and professional lives.

Kelsey: [There Is No Good Card for This] is about communication snafus that we make—not because we’re bad people, we just aren’t very equipped with handling difficult times.

It’s also about empathy and compassion, which is not just a list of skills of do’s or don’ts. It’s about showing up. As people who have been through their own crises know, that’s 90% of what’s wanted.

Empathy means that we can imagine the pain that someone else is in, not because we have been in that exact same situation, but we can tap into pain that we understand from our lives and try to imagine what might others be going through. You may have never had a significant loss but you know what it means to feel alone and lost. You may have never lost a job but you know what it means to have your confidence broken.

I’m a Sagittarius from Brooklyn. We are not the most patient listeners on the planet. I feel a lot more comfortable saying my opinion than listening to somebody else’s experience. That challenged me when I had friends who were in a difficult time, because when I didn’t know what to say, I did what many of us do, which is not saying anything.

When my friend Heidi got breast cancer, I shied away again, and I realized that I had a problem. A lot of us have that experience of shying away from somebody, and then we shake it off and move on. I couldn’t move on. I shied away from people in their darkest hours, but it wasn’t because I didn’t know grief—I did.

Want more conversations with the world's great thinkers? Click the shiny blue button!
My mother was my only family member and she and I were incredibly close. I had no other relatives and I did not know my father. She also had schizophrenia and when I was 19, she stopped taking her psychotropic medication. By the time I was 23, with her paranoia, she changed the locks, changed her number, and shut me out of her life completely. There were no cards, no calls. Loss of the mind has no ritual for mourning.

Except for the connection I had with a few very close friends, the loss of my entire family went unmentioned. That left me with a profound desire for love. What I felt more keenly was shame for that love, for wanting it so badly. This is a shame that many of us feel in our difficult times.

[When] I ask people, “What’s hard about asking for help?” people say, “Feeling like I should be able to tolerate the situation, fear of being a burden, fear that people will see me only for my affliction and not for me, and—the kicker—shame.” It’s a life lesson: you need to learn how to ask for help. It’s also a social, societal, and cultural lesson about how can we feel more equipped to show up without waiting to be asked.

What are some of the empathy roadblocks that get in the way of us connecting? Fear that we have no time or don’t want to pry. I don’t want to fail. I don’t want to do or say the wrong thing and make things worse.

Something happens when we become self-conscious about how we connect to somebody in their pain. A lot of that is about the [expectation] that we place on ourselves to say or do the perfect thing. If we don’t know what that perfect thing is then we feel it’s best to not do anything at all.

Monica: Could [you] touch on what you’ve learned from being the person suffering, about how to be more skilled [in expressing] what might help you or what you need?

Kelsey: Recognize that that’s very hard to do, because often we don’t even know what we need. Other people can sometimes see it more clearly than we do. We wouldn’t know to have asked for that amazing playlist that somebody just sent. There are so many ways that we get comfort, and a lot of it isn’t even about the thing itself, it’s the thoughtfulness behind it. Once we ask for it it feels a bit fake.

A big piece of that is learning how to receive help without putting too many conditions on what that help looks like. We all have preconceived notions of what we need and how we want it to look and who should do it.

When that person falls down on the job, we’re disappointed. That makes sense—grief rearranges your address book. You find out who you can count on and who you can’t. It can also teach you a graciousness about noticing the value of what you receive, which may not look like what you thought it should. Gratitude is a word that I can really loathe. I don’t think you can be grateful for every horrible thing that happens, but being grateful for the small things makes us easier to give to.

That said, be very specific about what you need. Give people some options so that they can turn one thing down but offer to do the other thing instead. Say, “If that doesn’t work, could you do this? Is there anything else that you want to do?” People want to help.

Monica: Could you give a couple of things you believe strongly to do when someone is having a sucky time?

Kelsey: It depends on what your strength is. Don’t cook for somebody if you’re not a good cook. Do what you can do well and feel very confident in offering that one thing. There are so many ways that we can be supportive that are not about talking or listening. A lot of us are intimidated by talking or listening. We’re great project managers, but we are not the best communicators. There’s other things you can do: networking, doing research, taking care of somebody’s garden, giving them flowers. You don’t have to be a best friend to do any of these things.

If, however, you want to sit down and talk with that person, the main thing that you can do is show up and ask, “What’s that like for you?” Then wait three seconds before you reply. People need that silence to start developing their thoughts. A chance to express how you feel can be really valuable, especially when you may feel ashamed of having these feelings. To get to express them and not have somebody run away but to sit with you. We all think that we’re good listeners but really what we’re usually doing is hearing.

Monica: Tell [me] a bit more about that distinction.

Kelsey: With hearing, you’re thinking about how you’re going to respond. In so many of our settings, at work or with friends over mimosas at brunch, you have to have opinions, you want to be forthright, to problem solve, to do things that make you engaged and exciting and interesting. That’s how you find your friendships and value in your workplace.

When it comes to being in a difficult time, somebody is feeling vulnerable and ashamed, and when you start offering up opinions, whether that’s advice or “Have you thought about…” you’re really getting into dangerous territory. That is why the best thing that you can do is listen.

Monica: But then I have no idea what to say. I’m going to feel really helpless. Coach me. What are some things [I can say] when I stop giving advice?

“Everyone’s coming in with advice that always looks different from the last person that gave advice… Instead, what we need to hear is, ‘I trust your judgment.’”

Kelsey: If you’re a habitual advice giver, first, notice that about yourself. We all have our go-to tendencies—mine is the doomsday-er. I’m habitually saying, “God, that’s awful.” There’s the eternal optimist, who’s like, “It’s fine, it will be fine.”

There’s a few different non-listening styles, and one is advice-giving. Just like you manage your germs when you have a virus, sneeze into your arm and not into your hand, recognize, “I need to hold that back.” My first go-to is to ask, “What’s that like for you? How are you today?” Questions that get people to talk and you to listen.

Say, though, that you want to say more—you can’t just sit there like a log and listen all the time. Something that people need to hear when they’re going through something tough is, “I trust your judgment.” Whether it’s divorce, illness, infertility, or loss, people are facing a host of decisions: legal, financial, medical.

Everyone’s coming in with advice that always looks different from the last person that gave advice, which is always questioning your judgment. Instead, what we need to hear is, “I trust your judgment.” Say, “I have faith in you, I know you know what to do.”

When it’s love that you feel for somebody, say, “I love you.” You can’t hear it enough, honestly. If you admire the person, [say], “I admire you so much. This does not change how I feel about you.” [Say] anything that expresses what you recognize to be true.

Monica: I know you have a love-hate relationship with the question, “How are you?”

Kelsey: My favorite quote is from C.S. Lewis, who wrote a book, A Grief Observed, about losing his wife to cancer. He says, “I see them approach me. They’re wanting to ask, ‘How are you?’ I hate it when they do. I hate it when they don’t.”

Grievers are mercurial creatures. One day being asked, “How are you?” will feel like, “Thank you for asking.” Then the next day they’ll be like, “Jesus, will everyone just stop asking?” When we think, “I just misstepped because I asked, ‘How are you?’” a lot of that is about where the griever is at.

There’s no perfect time to ask, “How are you?” That said, when someone’s in the immediate aftershock of something horrible, asking, “How are you?” is ridiculous. My husband, literally minutes after I learned that my mom had passed away, was like, “How are you?” I was like, “How else would I be?”

There’s a way to ask, “How are you?” that is much more manageable, which is, “How are you today?” That breaks it down from an overwhelming question where we might just say, “I’m fine,” to, “Today I’m feeling a little less tired than yesterday.” Which doesn’t mean I’m feeling fine that my dad died, it means today I’m feeling a little better and I might feel crappy again tomorrow.

Monica: You reassure us that fumbling around is better than not doing anything. So many times when I ask people in work environments about what stops them from reaching out to their colleagues, they’re afraid that they don’t know what to do. What are some small ways that we can find a way forward?

Kelsey: Work is tricky because we are straddling this veneer of professionalism and people’s lives could be falling apart at home. How do you navigate that? In that case, it’s important that we have a legacy about talking about suffering in the workplace, which includes asking that person, “How do you want us to handle this in the workplace? Do you want this to be private? Is it okay if I share it with these particular colleagues?”

In some cases, like an illness, you may not want news about your illness revealed to your boss if it causes job insecurity. Recognize that people are different about it. You don’t necessarily want a big bouquet of flowers on your desk. If somebody doesn’t want to draw attention to the fact that they’ve just had a miscarriage, there are some more discreet gifts that you can bring. One woman talked about giving a colleague his favorite doughnut. Just saying, “I see you and I want to make you feel a little bit better with this gesture.” It’s very possible to have conversations with colleagues about these matters when you do it in a discreet way. Not when walking into a meeting.

[Questions from the audience]

Audience: My biggest challenge is when I have to tell people I have terminal cancer. I could be dead in two months or in a couple years, there’s no way of knowing, and it makes everyone uncomfortable, including me. It’s awkward, because I don’t know how to get people to calm down. Right now, I walk in and go, “I’m not dead yet.” Then everyone can laugh and get over it.

People will ask me a question and I go, “I have terminal cancer, so that’s not an option.” I don’t have to tell them, and sometimes I don’t, but it feels false.

I don’t know what to say to not make them uncomfortable, because it seems like since I’m the cause of this anxiety, it’s my job to make them feel comfortable with my problem. How can I tell people my truth without traumatizing them and creating the situation where it’s hard to have a conversation?

“Difficult times have so many different components to them: sometimes you accept it, sometimes you’re in utter grief about it, you’re numb, you’re afraid, you’re not afraid.”

Kelsey: You don’t want to deny a big part of your reality. Difficult times have so many different components to them: sometimes you accept it, sometimes you’re in utter grief about it, you’re numb, you’re afraid, you’re not afraid. For that person that’s asking how are you doing with it now, it could be useful to help them feel better to say something like, “I actually have [a terminal] disease, but I’m okay with it now.”

Monica: Our job is to be impeccable to our 50%. We don’t have very much control over the other side’s 50%. You’re not the cause of the other person’s [emotions]. The other person has their feelings for reasons that have to do with their own life. Offer yourself release from the responsibility for the other 50%. I try to use that myself when I feel like I have to be taking responsibility for everybody else’s feelings, too.

Audience: Would it be better to tell the person just to enjoy every last little thing?

Kelsey: It sounds so good, doesn’t it, that we all enjoy the time that we have? Yet, we [are] all entitled to bad days, feeling angry, feeling scared. When somebody who’s been given the scariest news of all is then told to always feel good, you don’t even have the normal permission to be mad about things. You’re supposed to be fairly glad and happy about the worst thing.

I completely understand the impulse, [but] my recommendation is to recognize that’s my go-to response and it’s probably not helpful. Instead, say, “How are you doing with it?”

Say they do want to relax, say they don’t want to talk about it—if you’re the entertainer, you could ask, “You want to watch some bad reality TV? Do you want to go out? Do you want to play some video games?” Just be there. So much of what people want is just to know that you’re not running away because you fear contagion.

If you’re comfortable talking about feelings, the easiest way to talk about it is to do very little talking. That’s the blessing in this work. I always felt like I had to have the wise thing to say. The humility and headbanging that came with reading all of the research data—“my God, I did that and that.” The safest way to find that elusive wise thing to say is to ask.