How To Help A Friend In Crisis

by Stacey Curnow on · 20 comments

We think of the hol­i­days as a happy time of giv­ing to oth­ers. But some­times the hol­i­days are any­thing but happy for our friends and loved ones. Unfor­tu­nately, unex­pected and unde­sir­able events hap­pen even in the month of December.

Have you ever felt totally at a loss when it comes to sooth­ing or help­ing a friend in cri­sis? I remem­ber when the sur­geon came out after oper­at­ing on my mom and said she had found can­cer­ous lymph nodes (mean­ing the can­cer had spread from her breast, mean­ing that she had a much big­ger fight for her health ahead) and I felt the worst I had ever felt.

It took a lot of men­tal dis­ci­pline to focus on what I did want (for my mom to be healthy and happy) and not on what I didn’t want (which seemed to be star­ing me in the face), but I dis­cov­ered that it is pos­si­ble to make that shift. I read a great line on Danielle LaPorte’s blog, White Hot Truth:

Some­one is in pro­found pain, and a few months from now, they’ll be thriv­ing like never before. They just can’t see it from where they’re at.”

I really believe you can sit with some­one in their sor­row and pain and still see them as they will be (and, really, as they are right now deep down). I remem­ber tak­ing care of really sick kids when I was a nurs­ing stu­dent. At the time I cried to my nurs­ing instruc­tor, “How do you do it? It’s so hor­ri­ble.” and she said, “You just do it. Because you can soothe. Because you’ll help. Because that is enough.”

It soon struck me that if I could be fully present and focus on what would bring delight to the room (a sim­ple Cat’s Cra­dle from string was always a big hit), I helped. When I could get a child to smile and laugh, I soothed. More than any­thing else, though, I remem­ber how a parent’s face would light up when I asked for sto­ries of the child when she was well-and then pro­jected a time in the future when she would be doing all the things she loved again. There was grace, and yes, heal­ing, in those moments.

I have never believed that we help any­body by focus­ing solely on their sor­rows and lim­i­ta­tions. Of course, I have great com­pas­sion for the suf­fer­ing, and I’ll always try to soothe. (And you always know if you are sooth­ing or not by the reac­tion you get.) But as soon as I can, I try to let them know that I also see their best and shin­ing selves. And as it turns out, research sup­ports this approach.

A research study at Case West­ern Reserve Uni­ver­sity has doc­u­mented reac­tions in the human brain that show pos­i­tive vision­ing is much more likely to have a pos­i­tive effect than an inter­ac­tion in which the “helper” focuses on the prob­lem. The lat­ter is almost always received as a neg­a­tive judgment-even if it’s not meant to be.

That makes sense, doesn’t it? We know that peo­ple respond much bet­ter to a per­son they find inspir­ing and who shows com­pas­sion for them, rather than one who they per­ceive to be judg­ing them, but even our best inten­tions can be misperceived-and this study shows that even if that mis­per­cep­tion doesn’t hap­pen at a con­scious level, it does hap­pen on a cel­lu­lar level.

Anthony Jack, assis­tant pro­fes­sor of cog­ni­tive sci­ence, phi­los­o­phy and psy­chol­ogy, used func­tional mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing (fMRI) to show neural reac­tions based on dif­fer­ent coach­ing styles. This research built on some­thing called Inten­tional Change The­ory, which holds that pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive emo­tional attrac­tors cre­ate psycho-physiological states that drive a per­son to think about change.

We were really struck by one par­tic­u­lar find­ing in the visual cor­tex, where we saw a lot more activ­ity in the more pos­i­tive con­di­tion than in the more neg­a­tive con­di­tion,” Jack explained. In other words, think­ing about pos­i­tive change pro­duced a lot more activ­ity in the parts of the brain asso­ci­ated with imag­i­na­tion, parts that influ­ence basic visual pro­cess­ing and emo­tion. Jack says the fMRI images bear the neural sig­na­ture of vision­ing, a crit­i­cal process for moti­vat­ing learn­ing and behav­ioral change.

The bot­tom line? Spend­ing time talk­ing about a person’s desired per­sonal vision, even if the per­son is in cri­sis, will turn on the parts of the brain that are asso­ci­ated with openness-to solu­tions, to help-and bet­ter func­tion­ing. On the other hand, when peo­ple choose to focus on what isn’t going well, it actu­ally closes down future, sus­tain­able change, and stirs the sort of emo­tions that lead a per­son to turn away from help. Con­sider that the next time you focus on the cri­sis rather than the solution!

Every­one has to look a cri­sis in the face and take it on. I’m a strong believer in learn­ing from my mis­takes, and like Maya Angelou, I truly believe that when you know bet­ter you do bet­ter. But when you do find your­self stand­ing with some­one in a cri­sis, focus on what’s hap­pen­ing with faith that change is pos­si­ble. Focus on what the per­son wants, rather than what they don’t want. Because doing so makes all the dif­fer­ence in whether you will help them make pos­i­tive, deci­sive change in the future.

Have you ever helped any­one define their per­sonal vision in a time of cri­sis? How did you do it?


by Stacey Curnow

Stacey is a pur­pose and suc­cess coach who helps you give birth to your BIG dreams. To find your pur­pose and pas­sion, check out her FREE eBook, The Pur­pose and Pas­sion Guide­book.
Stacey Curnow
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