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How To Be Present For Those In Pain

(October 10, 2023 Newsletter)

“Each person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprint. But what everyone has in common is that no matter how they grieve, they share a need for their grief to be witnessed. That doesn’t mean needing someone to try to lessen it or reframe it for them. The need is for someone to be fully present to the magnitude of their loss without trying to point out the silver lining.”

David Kessler to Brené Brown, Unlocking Us podcast (quoted in her book Atlas of the Heart, pg. 111).

War in Israel: Like so many, I spent this weekend glued to the news and speaking with anyone I could reach in Israel. I can’t really formulate words yet to describe the swirl of emotions – horror, shock, disbelief, anger, despair, loss, grief, pain, confusion, to name a few – that I feel and have heard from others.

And here we are on Monday, staring at the daunting task of going about business as usual, with distracted minds, heavy hearts, and tired eyes.

So the best I can offer right now is some guidance on how to be present for those around you who are in pain.

  • This can feel especially challenging in a work environment, where social norms have traditionally dictated a hermetic separation of “emotions” and “work.”

  • But this week, some of you may be called upon to hold space for your teams or colleagues who are grappling with the shocking news.

  • And for those of you without a personal connection to this story, I hope this guidance can still be helpful, as it applies to any case of human suffering that shows up at work.

It always starts with compassion, which Brené Brown defines as “the daily practice of recognizing and accepting our shared humanity so that we treat ourselves and others with loving-kindness, and we take action in the face of suffering.” (Atlas of the Heart, pg. 118)

How can this concept be applied?

One word: empathy.

Here are a few steps to help your team process their emotions (the first four below are based on Theresa Wiseman’s Four Attributes of Empathy, as relayed in Atlas of the Heart pg. 122… I added the fifth).

To make it concrete, here’s a made-up opening to a conversation and a few ways to proceed. Imagine that you asked someone on your team how they’re feeling today and their response is, “Not great. I’m feeling totally powerless.”

  1. Stay out of judgment: A judgment-free answer would be to validate that feeling, whether you agree with it or not. That means not trying to put a positive spin on it, refute their claim, give an example of something they CAN do. This isn’t the moment. If you’re not sure what to say, try “I can understand why you’d feel that way” or “That must be really hard for you.”

  2. Probe about their perspective: After validating their emotion, ask a follow up question that relates to getting more details about what they mean. For example, “What’s that experience like for you?” or “Tell me more about how that feels.”

  3. See if you recognize the emotion: Regardless of whether you feel powerless in this situation, chances are you have at some other point in time. Can you reach that memory, to understand what it feels like? This isn’t the time to turn the attention to yourself – this is a silent, momentary exercise. An appropriate response would be to clarify if you’re understanding it right. “It sounds like you’re feeling helpless in light of the magnitude of the situation, is that right?”

  4. Communicate your understanding of the emotion: Perhaps their response would be, “Yeah and it’s just all so shocking.” (don’t forget, emotions rarely come one at a time…) You can take a moment to think and respond thoughtfully to what they just said; in this case, maybe about the connection between shock and helplessness.

  5. Ask what you can do to help: Sometimes the answer will just be, “It’s just helpful to talk about it with someone.” Perhaps the person will want to brainstorm next steps. Maybe you can help point them toward other resources, so they feel less alone. Careful not to commit to anything you can’t deliver.

The conversation doesn’t have to be long for it to be meaningful. Don’t offer reassurances that everything will be okay, anecdotes of how you’ve worked through those kinds of feelings before, or advice for moving on.

The short version is, “I see you. You’re not alone.”

And that goes for all of you too – I see you, Testing You’re not alone. If you want to speak and just process how you’re feeling, feel free to find a half hour in my schedule, on me.


That’s it for today, Comm&Lead. No coaching corner, no recommendations. We had a whole different newsletter planned for today – expect it next week. Stay safe. Pray for peace.


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