“My partner is ill, which is difficult in itself,” said one person, “but one of the hardest parts is answering questions about their illness. People ring up and, though they are well-meaning, it takes ages to answer their questions. I don’t want to be rude, but it can be very exhausting."
"The phone calls start with them expressing sympathy, but sometimes the roles get reversed and I end up giving them therapy! Have you any suggestions about how to deal with these kinds of situations?”
Can you recall a time when this has happened for you? You may have suffered a bereavement, lost a job, experienced an illness or whatever. Part of you wanted to be open with people, but it was tiring repeating details. Certainly you may want to talk about the issues with kindred spirits, but other enquiries may be more invasive.
How to deal with such conversations? One approach is to tell people you don’t want to talk about it. Another is to create a ‘script’ you can follow to be ‘polite’, but also manage your own energy. Let’s explore how to make this happen.
1) You can clarify your script for answering enquiries during a difficult time.
“This is the route we took when answering the questions,” said the person mentioned earlier. “The three key themes of our script went something like this:
‘Thank you for asking.
* X (my partner) has decided to embark on a course of treatment. The stats say the chances of success are fairly high, but you never know with these things.
* We are finding that, in some ways, it is making us stronger. We are appreciating the simple things in life and plan to go on several special trips.
* The course is x months long and we will let you know of any further developments. How are you?’
“Having a script meant we did not have to rethink every time somebody phoned. We just returned to the themes.
"Putting it together also helped to clarify our philosophy for dealing with the illness. We revisited our priorities and spent time enjoying our relationship. Sometimes we elaborated on the script with different people. The key thing it did, however, was to provide a compass we could return to during conversations.”
You would, of course, follow this approach in your own way. Try tackling the exercise on this theme.
First, describe a potentially difficult situation where you might want to use a script to deal with ‘caring enquiries’.
Second, imagining yourself in that situation, describe the three key messages you might want to give people. (Obviously it is hard to predict such a situation, but it can be useful to consider your potential strategy.)
Try completing the following sentences.
2) You can follow the script for answering enquiries during the difficult time.
“Divorce is never easy,” said another person, “and it is hard to be ‘measured’ after a separation. My partner and I obviously got our act together in terms of talking with the children – something that has continued till this day. Explaining the news to others was more challenging, especially as some wanted to know the details or talk about their own divorce!"
"So I devised a sort of ‘press release’. I said that we had enjoyed being together for many years, but then simply grew in different directions. I kept returning to these lines, rather than being drawn into recriminations. It became a kind of mantra that protected me from too many questions, though obviously I did a lot of soul-searching.”
How can you follow your ‘script’? Certainly there may be some people with whom you want to go deeper. But there will be others who, for whatever reason, put you under pressure.
Try tackling the exercise on this theme. First, describe the specific pressures you may need to deal with when answering queries in the difficult situation. Second, describe the things you can do, if appropriate, to follow your script when answering enquiries. Try completing the following sentences.
3) You can use the script as a guiding compass during the difficult time.
The script can also provide a ‘guiding compass’. This is something you can use to clarify and communicate your philosophy in the difficult situation.
One couple took this approach when their daughter, Kelly, became depressed after suffering setbacks at school. Previously she had seemed happy, but she did have a strong need for affirmation from her parents and authorities.
Something happened when she was 14, however, and her school grades collapsed. Kelly stopped attending dancing and art classes – activities she loved – and retreated into herself. Her only interest seemed to be spending hours working with horses in the local stables. Everything came to a head one day when the school rang to say Kelly had fainted in class.
“We were worried sick,” said her father, “but we got help from an excellent counsellor. She explained things in a caring but matter of fact way."
"First, the doctors could not find anything physically wrong with Kelly. If the fainting continued, however, it would be good to get further medical opinions."
"Second, Kelly tended to seek reassurance, which wasn’t coming from the exam results. She needed a sense of success. But this had to come from within her, rather than by trying to please other people."
"Third, like many youngsters, Kelly was seeking ways to be in control of her life. It would be important for her to find positive, rather than negative, ways to make this happen.”
“The counsellor said there may be many reasons for Kelly’s behaviour, but our role was clear. It was to provide a caring environment in which we gave her consistent messages."
"She suggested that one way to do this was for my wife and I to agree on the messages we wanted to keep giving Kelly. These could become our guiding philosophy during difficult times. This wasn’t rocket science, but it made sense. So my wife and I settled on our messages to give Kelly. These were:
* We love you. We care for you, not your grades or outward achievements.
* We will encourage you to follow your passions. These may be horse-riding, painting, dancing or whatever.
* We recognise you will be making many more decisions in the future. Many of these will be for you to make – though on some we may have a view! We care for you, however, and will do whatever we can to support you.
“My wife and I tried to stick to this framework. There were ups and downs over the years, but Kelly seems much happier these days. She is now at university studying art. Though she keeps threatening to become a vet!”
The ‘guiding compass’ approach is used by counsellors to help people to clarify and – when appropriate – communicate their philosophy during crises. They can gain strength from it time after time. People do not have to think about reacting to every twist and turn along the way. They can return to what they believe-in and translate their philosophy into action.
There are many ways to deal with ‘caring enquiries’ during crises. One approach is to clarify your ‘script’. You can follow this to be ‘polite’ but also focus on what is important during the difficult times.
Looking at the difficult situation you may face in the future, how could you use your script in this way? Try completing the following sentence.