How to Help a Friend Through a Crisis

by Stacey on March 7, 2011

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. Recently 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?

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