What do you do when someone says they're not fine?
Authentic. Vulnerable. Real. Show up.
That’s the message that’s coming through loud and clear today. But what happens when someone is really authentic and really vulnerable? Are we equipped to deal with it?
As someone who is very comfortable with vulnerable — well at least other people being vulnerable — I found it enlightening to be on the other side of vulnerable. I was not in a good place emotionally, and shared this with a close friend. It was one of those moments that I was not ready for. I’m normally the one asking the questions. But I took a leap. I wanted to be real. So, I said it … ‘I’m not fine.’
To say you are not fine is not necessarily fine for some people. It can be met with: ‘She’ll be right mate’ (well, in Australia at least), or an awkward silence. Sometimes there are jokes and back patting in an attempt to make light of the situation, hoping you can snap out of it. Occasionally you’ll get a question or two, before the subject is changed and the conversation is moved onto the next holiday or the footy score. I once worked with a well-meaning manager whose response was: ‘Just put on a bit of lippy and you’ll feel better’.
Well that’s OK if you are just having an after lunch slump in energy. It’s not enough if you are really not fine.
When I shared this experience with some colleagues and friends and my questioning of our capability to handle vulnerability I was struck by several questions they asked me. I want to share these with you because I think they are useful to consider when faced with sharing vulnerability:
Were they ready to hear what you had to say?
Was the time and place right? I’m not sure if you can put an appropriate time and place for sharing vulnerability, but certainly it helps if both parties are ready. While researching for ‘Coming Out, Staying Close’ the piece of advice that appeared repeatedly was to choose the right time and the right environment to come out. I’m sure this applies to sharing your vulnerability in general, both parties have to be ready to have the conversation.
How would you have liked them to respond?
This particularly hit home with me. How would I have liked them to respond? When someone shares openly, vulnerably, we are often stuck in our own struggle with how to respond. We can get caught up in trying to find the right thing to say or trying to find a solution. Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes we don’t know what to say or do. The empathetic amongst us know the key to handling vulnerability is to respond in a way they would have you respond.
What were you really feeling at the time?
Probably one of the easiest things to do when someone is sharing openly and honestly, is to acknowledge feelings. It sounds obvious, but often in the moment, if we’re overcome by a sense of helplessness in hearing someone be vulnerable, we can dive into solutions. Taking pause and acknowledging what you are hearing about how the person is feeling is important to help them feel validated and listened to.
What did you need in that moment?
It’s easier to help someone if you know exactly what they need from you. We sometimes forget to be clear about our needs and often we don’t ask the other person to help.
My conclusion? Sometimes we get it right. Sometimes we don’t. Remembering that relationships are built one conversation at a time can help. If you don’t get it right the first time, try again.
We are learning to be more authentic and vulnerable. We have to be aware that we are also learning to accept and respond well to others being authentic and vulnerable. It’s a journey – but one that is worth taking. The result? Ultimately, it will lead to better conversations, better relationships and more meaningful connections. It doesn’t get better than that!