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I Hear Your Pain: How to Ramp up Your Compassion Meter

June 19, 2020 Barbara Ballinger & Margaret Crane

Most of us are in pain on some level and on edge at this moment in time. It might even be hyper-elevated now for many on an individual and collective basis, due to the pandemic and horrific murders of multiple black people. We’re also sharing our pain and stress more overtly such as talking it out to friends and family, writing about it, podcasting, making YouTube presentations, or protesting as a group both in person and virtually in our towns and cities.  


This does not preclude other times we feel pain and anguish, maybe, because of our kids’ heartaches, elder parents’ decline, our finances as the stock market continues its roller-coaster ride, plummeting job market, or any other number of reasons, small and big. 

Barbara’s personal pain right now stems from not seeing her daughters and their families and her mother for more than three months. She was fortunate to have one 15-minute social-distancing visit with her older daughter. Then, she was gone. Barbara also is experiencing great concern about a medical issue that can’t yet be attended to due to hospitals being closed except for pandemic and emergency situations. She feels for one daughter who’s engaged but can’t yet plan a wedding or celebration that will gather together family and close friends. She rebuffed her mother’s attempt at humor when she suggested our favorite governor, Andrew Cuomo, marry them online in a Zoom gathering. Levity often helps ease pain, but not in this case. 

Margaret’s personal pain comes from an ill-timed move to New York City, living in a high-rise building where she’s quarantined in a dense city without a car and feeling trapped some days because of the pandemic. She cannot even get on a bus or subway to explore her new city, except on foot. So many of the activities she came to New York City to enjoy are on pause. Trips to do simple errands such as grocery shopping or going to the pharmacy are off the table for fear of being infected by Covid-19. She misses the personal contact with the kids she was tutoring and getting together with the few friends she made in the first six months of her move. Most of her new friends do not live anywhere near her. She hopes to pick up these friendships where they left off once there’s a vaccine. Her solace is seeing her son a few times who lives nearby and her two sisters, Zooming and seeing on a screen some St. Louis friends, and her kids and their partners. It’s not the real deal, but it must suffice for now. 

So, here’s our recipe for those who need to vent about their pain, and the best way to listen without being judgmental or competitive and saying or thinking your pain isn’t as bad as mine! This isn’t easy to do, but we are trying to hear each other well and not discount the pain of the other, ever. Everyone is entitled to their feelings. What’s tough for us, however, as nurturers is not to rush in with ideas to help lessen each other’s angst. It’s done with good intentions. We may try to fix things for each other and many others, but that’s not what the other might want to hear unless asked. We’re so used to saying, “Here’s what I think you might consider.” But did the other person ask for advice or just an ear to listen? 

Sadly, not everything can be made good. We can’t lessen the other’s aloneness given the importance of self-isolating, especially for our age group. We can’t make a medical condition change with the snap of our fingers. We can’t make it safe to return to old routines of favorite workouts, classes, museum visits, concerts, tutoring sessions, and lunches and dinners out at once crowded lively restaurants and bars. 

And with some people, when we say the wrong thing at the wrong time to them by email, text, or voice, they become greatly annoyed. They might become defensive, shut down, and slink away without letting us apologize. In the worst cases, friendships and even family ties may be smashed like the glass windows during the recent riots. 

But because we have more time right now, we can think more, listen, really listen better, and hold back our thoughts and advice to get through these difficult times. Our friends who are in pain, regardless of the reason, need to figure out their own solutions to feel better. It’s time to hold our tongues and open our ears. Their pain is about them, not us. 

Even if you didn’t ask, here’s the advice we’ve given ourselves to preserve relationships when everybody is on edge and super-sensitive in these extraordinary times. 

  1. Listen better than you ever have. Let the person finish speaking, don’t rush in with an opinion. Let them stop, catch their breath, and have some silence fill the air. Maybe, repeat back what they said verbatim or in your own words, so they know you heard them. Or say, “I know that you’re struggling. This is a tough time.” 
  1. Don’t play conversational narcissism. That means no chiming in with examples of what you’re going through at all. No exceptions. You may want to do this to make them aware that everyone experiences pain or because you really want to share yours with them then. The reality is that they know it, and so do you. Now, is the time to keep your experiences to yourself. Save it for another time. Keep the conversation focused on them and their pain. It will make them a better listener when you need their ear. You might even say, if they do interrupt you another time with their experience, “Hey, I listened to you when…now, I would love your undivided attention, please.” 
  1. Ask what you can do, if anything. “How might I help, if I can?” you might say. Or another version is to say, “Do you want me to think of some ideas to help?” Then, shut up, and wait to hear the reply. 
  1. If the person says “no,” you have your answer. STOP! Simon says, you don’t go, or as we learned from childhood you’re out of the game, maybe for now or longer. 
  1. If the person answers “yes” for some advice, you’ve been given the green light. Best, however, is to slow down and really think of several ideas before rushing in like an old-fashioned gun slinger. You might say, “Let me think and get back to you soon.” Or, you could brainstorm together. Do it on this basis: Listen to them and if they want input, say perhaps, “It sounds like you have options. You could do A, B, or C? What say you?” That puts it back on them. 
  1. At the end of the conversation, acknowledge again their pain. Our kids often tell us that we repeat ourselves. We do. However, in this case, we think it’s helpful to do so. Paraphrase what they said, if you can. Also, you might say or write, “I heard you and am here for you.” That’s what people in pain really want, we believe. They want to believe others care. And then you have to let them pick up the ball and run with it. Don’t keep going back with variations of “How might I help?” or limit the times you do. You spoke, offered, so now be patient about letting them reach out to you. If you do offer advice, don’t be offended if they don’t take it. 

The secret of this approach is that it works, whether it’s related to the pandemic, better race relations, religious, and even political challenges. People want a voice and want to be heard. Practice makes perfect, or at least better, and soon you’ll get in the habit of not sharing your pain when the other shares their pain with you. If a friend or family member cries to you about their child losing their job or having a broken relationship, be present but be quiet. Remember: Silence is golden when you don’t have or aren’t asked to come up with an answer.



2 comments

  • Lynn Harris

    Jun 20, 2020

    While I know most of these recommendations, it is a great reminder during this challenging time.

  • Phyllis Evan

    Jun 19, 2020

    Great article. Important to keep in mind


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