Let's say your name is Chris and you have a friend named Rita. Let's say you see her right outside of your usual coffee shop, while she's carrying her latte out and you’re on your way in for your morning pick-me-up.
You say, "Rita, what's up?"
She steps out of the way for others on their way in and says, "Hey, Chris. Well, my new job is driving me crazy. I'm either completely bored or going out of mind with some crazy project." Rita's face is more flushed than usual and she looks like she’s already worked a whole day.
She continues, "Yesterday my boss asked me to find out how to ship a Tibetan carpet from Mexico back into the U.S. and there's this form that asks all these questions about what the carpet is made out of and what its path of origin was or whatever. It's a nightmare." She drags a hand through her hair.
You put down your bag to give her your full attention, "Rita, you haven't been there long. I'm sure there's someone else in the office you can ask for help.” It sounds to you like she has a challenge on her hands, but not a huge one.
"No, there really isn’t,” Rita sighs. “It's a ten-person office and everyone else is an accountant or an HR person or a vice-president. That's one of the many things I hate about this job, Chris. I'm the support staff, all by myself. There's no one to show me the ropes at all." Rita now looks less frustrated and more dejected. You know exactly how she feels, trying to grope her way through a new job, so you reassure her that this is perfectly normal.
"Rita, everyone goes through that. It just takes a while to learn a new job. Call the post office or UPS maybe. They've got to be able to help with stuff like that."
"Yeah, I guess," but her eyes don't leave the ground and she looks sad.
"Oh, it's just that even if I figure this one out, there'll just be another problem tomorrow that I'll have no idea what to do with. Or there'll be nothing to do at all." You’re surprised that she’s taking it this hard.
"Rita, give yourself time. It'll be fine. I had a rough time at my job, too, when I was brand new. Just wait, you'll feel much better in another month or so."
At this point Rita throws her head back and sighs, then lifts it again and says, "Chris, this job is weird. I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing there."
You frown slightly, genuinely confused. Why doesn't Rita see that this feeling is normal and she’ll soon be over it?
You give it one more try. "Rita, you're a great support person. You've got years of experience, plus you're about the smartest person I know. I'm sure if you just relax, things will get better."
Your friend looks you in the eye while you say this, but once you’re done she glances down and mutters, "Never mind. I have to go."
"Rita -- "
"I'll talk to you later," she throws over her shoulder and slumps away, leaving you baffled.
If you’ve ever been in Chris’ position, I have a possible explanation because I've been Rita, many, many times. Often what people like Rita are looking for is sympathy. We appreciate that you want to make us feel better, but that isn't always the best way to begin. People like Chris are great at pointing out the bright side or reassuring us that everyone goes through this. Chris is an excellent resource for helpful advice and reminding us that we're okay and things will change soon. But what I often need is to simply know that someone is listening, perhaps with the words, “I’m sorry. That sucks.” Words like this tell me that the listener has heard my problem, is okay with my pain and isn’t trying to quickly improve my mood because they're uncomfortable with my emotions.
Here’s how I would prefer the conversation to go.
Rita says, "Yesterday my boss asked me to find out how to ship a Tibetan carpet from Mexico back into the U.S. and there's this form that asks all these questions about what the carpet is made out of and what its path of origin is or whatever. It's a nightmare." She drags a hand through her hair.
You put down your bag to give her your full attention, "Wow, that sounds rough. And I guess there’s no one there who can help you out?” (Now you’re not assuming that Rita hasn’t already tried everything.)
"No, there really isn’t,” Rita sighs. “It's a ten-person office and everyone else is an accountant or an HR person or a vice-president. That's one of the many things I hate about this job, Chris. I'm the support staff, all by myself. There's no one to show me the ropes at all."
You think you know exactly how she feels, trying to grope her way through a new job, but you don’t assume, so you keep your sympathy simple and say, "I’m sorry. That sucks.”
Rita lifts her eyes and looks at you. She takes a deep breath and says, “Yeah. It does.”
You pause and wait for her cue, ready to give whatever she seems to need. When she doesn't speak, you make sure you understand by saying, "It sounds like you've got this whole pile of responsibility and no one to show you how to do it."
"Yeah," Rita's face starts to clear, "I've never had a job where there was no orientation to the job at all!"
Again, you follow her lead and when she asks, "Have you ever had a job like that?" you say, "Not exactly like that, but I've had some pretty bad training that was as good as none at all."
Now that Rita asks you for your experience you give it and when she wonders what she should do next, you launch into all that great advice that was fighting to get out from the beginning.
Or maybe Rita simply thanks you for listening and then moves on. Whatever her reaction, she feels like you really listened and were present for her and she's grateful that you didn’t give in to your discomfort and try to rush her into a better state of mind.
"I'm sorry, that sucks" are surprisingly powerful words for me. When I'm feeling bad about a particular situation in my life, they are often all I want, at least at first. After I feel like you’ve heard me and sympathized, then I might be interested in advice or another view of the problem. Helpful suggestions are great, but I don’t always need them up front.