The Most Powerful Question We Can Ask Others During Difficult Times

It goes without saying that there is a lot (understatement of the millennia) of political turmoil going on. I know it has been hard on people. It is hard on them as individuals, families, couples, employees, companies, etc. I felt it might be beneficial for me to sit down and write about it as a mental health clinician. As my cursor blinked at me from the blank page, I thought, “What on earth can I write that would be helpful?” Should I encourage people to not give in to the divisiveness and acrimony that are occurring between groups? Or would it be better to speak out about LGBTQI rights? Or perhaps it would be helpful to validate the confusion, hurt, fear, and anger people are feeling? Well, I came to the conclusion that…

I don’t know. I don’t know what would be helpful for people right now. I don’t always know what to say or how to best support others during this time. I don’t know what will happen in the coming years and whether “it will be okay” or not. Then I thought, “I do know this: the ONLY way to know what other people need is to ask. And then listen.” Sounds good, right?

Except that one temptation we have when feel unheard, unseen, disrespected, angry, and afraid is to disconnect. To stop talking. To shut down. To turn away. We naturally want to distance ourselves from whatever we see as the source of pain or discomfort. Let’s not do that. Let’s continue to have the difficult discussion (with a spirit of respect), continue to listen to how others are feeling, continue to share how we’re feeling with others. Just continue to connect with those around us.

If I have learned anything in my life and training, it is that we are wired for connection. We need it. We seek it out. It may seem like the best situation would be absolute peace and agreement across the land. But given that no two people experience the world in quite the same way, having absolute peace and agreement would mean that someone (okay, a LOT of someones) isn’t being honest or getting their needs met. Respectful discussion and effective listening are the only ways to understand how another person experiences the world and to know what their needs are.

Relationship experts and Psychologists Drs. John and Julie Gottman, frequently talk about the importance of couples understanding and respecting the idea of multiple realities. In essence, what you and your partner think/feel/experience in day-to-day life is not going to be the same. How you perceive and experience even a conversation you had together will not be the same. Everything is colored by our personality and life experiences. So focusing on whom is “right” or what the “truth” is will predictably lead to disconnection, leaving us feeling misunderstood and unheard. How can we know how our partner feels or what they need? We ask. We listen.

It must to be the same for us as neighbors, co-workers, families, communities, and as a country right now. We need to resist the urge to shut down and hide out around people who only think like we do. We need to embrace the idea of multiple realities and listen to what people around us are saying. We may disagree. We may feel hurt or offended. We may get angry. All of that is okay. Relationships are not about avoiding conflict. They’re about effectively managing inevitable conflict by remaining in respectful connection.

So yes, resist the divisiveness and acrimony that is permeating our country. But more than that, truly connect with others. It’s okay if we don’t know exactly what words to say or how to be helpful to those around us. Ask what would be helpful to them and listen to what they have to say.

I’ve heard people say they started volunteering at a particular organization as way of helping themselves feel less helpless. Or they created a prayer circle at their place of worship. Or they decided to create enforceable boundaries with family members to not discuss politics at the dinner table (or at all, in some cases).

So now I ask you, what do you need right now? What do you think would be helpful for you in getting through these turbulent days? Identify that and ask for what you need.

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