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RUOK and What Not to Say

Posted by Ian Good on 7 November 2018

Health and safety month, held every October, has now finished and upon reflection as to one of the main focus areas of the month, that of mental health, I thought it worth offering some of my thoughts and experiences about communicating with people who experience injury or harm through physical or emotional routes.

The learnings I am offering can be used in all situations where a person has felt emotional or physical hurt.

NEVER start your response or include anywhere in your response the phrase "At least.."  Once you say this, you have immediately invalidated the person's feelings or physical hurt. If they say it, that is fine and allows you some leeway in how you continue the communication, but do wait for their lead.

My partner and I went to a celebration of a niece's partner's life. In effect it was a wake, but reading the invitation language, we were not sure as to what would be the right way to approach her to express our sadness. We workshopped our initial approach all the way to the venue. When we got there, we spoke to my niece and niece's brother and they both said 'what a shitty time it had been'. All our workshopped condolence phrases went out the window and we followed their lead when talking about the partner's early and tragic death.

I use this as an example as to how we should communicate with any person to whom hurt or harm has befallen, be that a death in the family, a chronic or terminal illness or a mental health issue arising from work as well as from other situations. Stand beside the person, validate their hurt/suffering, noting that validation is not agreement, but an acknowledgement as to the impact the event has had on them. Let the person tell you how they feel, why they feel that way and not try to fix them. The 'fixing' may come with time and further discussions or it may not. Some traumas linger and cannot be fixed, but possibly coped with by help from various providers.

'At least' is our way of trying to make good of a 'shitty' situation. When a person is suffering, they are not interested what could happen next, or they will gain strength from the adversity, or some other positive platitude, and avoid quoting Deepak Chopra or the Dali Lama. It is hard to hear of a person's suffering without trying to do something that makes us feel valuable or less uncomfortable, however, take the lead from the sufferer before offering anything other than possibly the question, "what can I do", or when you are really stuck, "I just don't know what to say".

Three weeks ago I ran into some of the Daniher Drive group, a Motor Neurone Disease fund raising event, in a Horsham coffee shop. Terry and Chris Daniher were there along with other car driving fund-raising enthusiasts. The fund raising for Motor Neurone Disease has been lifted due to the high profile the Danihers have had in the Australian football community, but I am pretty sure Neale would rather have not contracted the disease and be showing his brothers who was the better footballer, rather than being overjoyed by someone saying, 'at least' the community is benefitting from his misfortune or that he has overcome major physical hurdles to get to where he is. Neale may say it, but it is not our place to say it.

We all can recite Monty Python's song 'Look on the bright side of life', or quote the Black Knight 'It's only a flesh wound', but in reality, this is not how people with mental health or other injuries or hurts would like to be communicated. They really want or need your attention, validation and reassurance you are there for them.

Author: Ian Good
Tags: Ian Good

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