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False Positive: Listening and Compassion are the Best Medicine

August 30, 2019 Barbara Ballinger & Margaret Crane

“Don’t worry, it’s really a nothing procedure.” Or, “The problem with your house is really no big deal; a few thousand dollars will correct it.” Or, here’s another, “Your mother is having an operation? I’m sure she’ll be fine.”

We consider these mostly inane comments. They are not helpful in any way, shape or form. Someone typically says a variation of these types of responses trying to comfort you when something is awry, but the reality can be quite the opposite. Any of them might make you feel a tad--or maybe--greatly annoyed.

The fact is that they’re not walking in your shoes, haven’t really listened to your tone and words and how you’re terribly nervous about any stay in a hospital or the additional expense at a time when you’re overloaded.

This conversational snafu, which we’ve thought about for a while now—with our own and our family members’ and friends’ various ailments, organ recitals, house, car and kid challenges and more—got a head’s up from The New York Times newspaper recently (July 15, 2019) in a small “tip article” in the Business section titled, “Morale boosts, a.k.a. ‘dismissive positivity’” or “toxic positivity,” terms coined by psychotherapist Whitney Goodman.

We prefer to call what’s going on a “false positive”—our riff on a medical procedure that indicates something is present or positive when it’s not. That’s the good news, but it’s not the cheerfulness sought at the time. As the writer of the tip feature, Anna Goldfarb, put it, “…it’s better to respond with something that imparts validation and hope,” as well as real, sincere compassion. We wholeheartedly agree that a sugar-coated dismissive response doesn’t hold water. Instead, we’d rather engage in what we term “conversational caring.” Example: “I am sure you’re feeling nervous about your mother’s operation. I wish you the best. I’m here if you need to vent or sound out anything.”

Barbara remembers the feeling well with some medical problems she’s had through the years.  One physician-friend, whom she consulted years ago, pooh-poohed a recently disclosed problem as nothing to worry about. It wasn’t his specialty, but he was smart. Also, she trusted him. She believes his reaction was that it was far less threatening than the bigger medical challenges he routinely deals with day in and day out. It certainly was and that was a bit comforting, yet at the same time to her it nonetheless was—and remains—a big deal since it involves a possible operation. A few others reacted the same way that the doctor did when she discussed it by saying the possibility of surgery was “nothing to worry about.” How easy for them to say that when it wasn’t their body part being cut, she thought. For Barbara, going under any knife is huge and scary.

Her internist listened and comforted her with his response. Knowing her hesitancy, he advised her not to rush in for the procedure since it doesn’t pose an immediate health risk. “Let’s get all the information we can from experts and then decide how to proceed,” he advised.

And even when she broke two bones in her dominant hand and fractured her wrist 2 ½ years ago, some tried to find the silver lining by saying some variation of “oh, it could have been far worse.” Of course, it could have been, and she could have hit her head and died as one classmate from high school did before their 50th reunion almost two years ago. In the first few months after her fall, when the pain was searing and the therapy tough and draining, she could see only dark clouds. Forget the silver linings.

And after Margaret lost her husband eight years ago, so many people weighed in with their form of compassion. “He’s now in a better place.” “At least he’s no longer in pain.” Or, “You’ll feel so much better after a year.” It was kind, yes, they said anything but also infuriating that those who hadn’t lost a close family member were telling her how she was supposed to feel and recover from the loss. The worst, perhaps, however, were “I know just how you feel” and “You’ll feel better in a few months.”

It’s not that we want to hang the black crepe, be the center of attention and moan and groan endlessly, but those of us who go to the effort of sharing something physically or emotionally painful would love a response that at least acknowledges what we’re facing and how we might feel.

Some have for sure. With her hand accident, Barbara greatly appreciated those who asked how she was doing, what the prognosis and recovery were expected to be and then showed their concern by asking what they could do to help. With her current medical problem, she’s appreciated those who’ve listened to her concern when she’s shared it.

Margaret found that most people were compassionate when her husband was sick and after he died. They wanted to show their sympathy. Many folks took her out, spent time with her talking about her late husband and how much they liked him, brought food, offered to help her write thank you notes for donations in his memory, mow their lawn or do other house chores and didn’t judge her when she would break out in tears unexpectedly as part of the grieving process. And they remained in touch, long after the first year.

Our takeaway advice is to avoid rushing in with a pat generalized response or offering false positive hope. Instead, try our five-step prescription:

  1. Listen carefully.
  2. Ask relevant questions you might have to show you want to fully grasp the situation. “So, the operation involves what? Are there various options? It sounds like you’ve done your research. I wish you the best.” Avoid some not-sensitive questions that Margaret was asked when her husband was initially diagnosed with cancer, “Did you get a second opinion?” That wasn’t helpful since she had been diligent about doing all they could. Yet, some questions might be helpful given the circumstances. One of Barbara’s good friends hadn’t gotten a second opinion, however, and she and another friend urged the friend to do so. She did at a different medical facility and the diagnosis and prognosis were quite different.
  3. Listen actively. Repeat back the concern such as “I’m so sorry you’re nervous about the long recuperation” or “I’m sorry about the expensive house (or car) repair. That sucks. It must be so frustrating for you right now?” Those words show that you’ve listened and really care.
  4. Step up and suggest what you will do to help, which is even better than asking “What may I do to help?” The person with the health, house, car or child challenge already has so much on their plate—and so many decisions to make. Knowing that dinner is arriving or that a stack of mags is being left takes a few things off their to-do list. In other cases, write out or email a list of helpful names such as your contractor or car mechanic for a second bid.
  5. Show your continued support. Check in periodically to find out how things are progressing or if the problem has been resolved. If no, they need your support more and if yes, it’s time for a celebratory toast!

The good news is that conversational caring is quite contagious and doesn’t require a pill. Listening to someone’s feelings is the best medicine of all




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