Some people like to ignore feelings while others like to exploit them. And then you get the people who know their feelings and just want to express them. Yup, they want to talk about them. What do you do when someone is expressing strong emotions that you don’t share? I’d like to think that we all should have learned this in childhood, but in actuality, many of us didn’t. If the person who is emoting is someone you care about, then you might need a game plan. If your loved one usually has their act together and is usually the one holding the rest of the family together, it can be even harder to know what to do. I have a few thoughts, and I know there are some real emotional ninjas out there with coping techniques, so please share your ideas in the comments.
As the support person, you don’t have to agree with why your loved one is afraid, angry, hurt, or grieving. You don’t have to agree with their interpretation of events or the probable outcome. The moment that you feel that the conversation has moved from a topical debate to an expression of emotions, you should be nimble enough to detect the sea change. Once the talk has become emotional, so should your response. There will be time for a logical discussion later, and you can bring up all your good arguments and points then. When someone’s switch has flipped from thinking to full-blown feeling, it’s not the time to debate; your response should address the hurting person’s emotional needs. He/she needs reassurance, comfort, and understanding — not the big picture (my usual response), the spiritual lesson (my second preferred response), or insight about why they are hurting.
As the listener, you can provide comfort and solidarity by explaining that you will be there for them, to help them through their problems. If your relationship isn’t THAT close, then point out the people who will be there for them to see them through (family, friends, etc. ). Try to help them feel that they’re not alone and they’ll have others’ strength surrounding them. If possible, express your love or friendship; it’s amazing how much easier it is to recover from fear or pain if we know that we don’t have to do it alone. I’d suggest that you don’t tell them that they are strong and can handle it just fine by themselves. Even if it’s true, that’s something to share when you’re in logical discussion territory, not an emotional melt-down.
Don’t try to explain to them that what they’re feeling isn’t true. You may not feel the same way. The speaker’s emotions may make you uncomfortable. You may think it is all just so silly that the person you love is upset over something so speculative, trivial, or remote. Take a deep breath and understand that they are not telling you everything. There is likely much more that they don’t feel safe or prepared to share. It may be that something triggered a history of pain and hurt that you know nothing about. Like when someone’s dog dies and they cry not just for the loss of that dog, but all those who came before it, the loss of others that they loved, and the feeling of utter abandonment. All you may know about is the current loss, but it has triggered far more that is unsaid. In any case, the speaker is the natural authority of his/her feelings, so you should just concede that.
The speaker’s emotions are true for him/her in that moment. Rather than react in fear or opposition about how you are going to cope with their feelings, just accept them for the present and listen. This isn’t the time to develop your plan of attack for their issue while you pretend to listen. That is something you save for the logical discussion. During the emotional conversation, you should just listen and try to understand. The emotions may change with time, or they may not; you’ll just have to wait and see. After time to process things further, the speaker’s feelings could change. But if talking about feelings is part of his/her process, then you need to go with the flow for now.
Sometimes the listener feels like the speaker is over-reacting, being far more upset than the situation warrants. That may be true. Why would they have such a strong reaction? You might want to consider that they feel some things more acutely than you do. Could he/she could be a highly sensitive person? Or maybe he/she’s over-tired, hungry, and melting down because he/she is physically off-balance? After tears begin to wane and emotions start to dwindle, it’s okay to offer a snack, nap, or soothing drink.
Although a conversation about someone’s deep fears, concerns, and/or pain isn’t an opportunity for a topical debate, it’s an opportunity to show your support and reassure the speaker that they’re loved.