Healing Conversations: What to Say When You Don't Know What to Sayby Nance Guilmartin
In today's relentless 24/7 world, this revised edition of Healing Conversations is a communications first-aid kit for difficult and troubling times. Filled with touching stories, it serves as an everyday resource to offer, accept, or ask for comfort when facing life's inevitable challenges. Whether you are at a loss for what to say, what to do, or simply how to be
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In today's relentless 24/7 world, this revised edition of Healing Conversations is a communications first-aid kit for difficult and troubling times. Filled with touching stories, it serves as an everyday resource to offer, accept, or ask for comfort when facing life's inevitable challenges. Whether you are at a loss for what to say, what to do, or simply how to be when you're responding to transitions, losses, or awkward moments, Healing Conversations is a wise and useful guide.
"Through real-life storiesMs. Guilmartin shows how to be a helpful and comforting resource, how to listen as well as to talk, and, conversely, how to seek comfort in rough times."The New York Times
"I urge you to buy a copy of Healing Conversations . . . you'll feel more confident about your ability to know what to say and how to say it."Christiane Northrup, M.D., renowned physician and author of Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom
"A tremendously important book that I could have used a hundred times before."Richard Carlson, author, Don't Sweat the Small Stuff
"This is a sensitive and wise book."Joan Halifax Roshi, head teacher, Upaya Zen Center
"An extraordinary, comprehensive blueprint for dealing with the slings and arrows of daily, stressful, sometimes hurting life."Jeffrey Fox, author, How to Become CEO: The Rules for Rising to the Top of Any Organization
"Doctors, nurses, patients, and their families need this book right now."Rudi Ansbacher, M.D., past president, Society for Humanism in Medicine
"...Healing Conversations is like a first-aid communications kit, offering practical principles to apply to life's difficult moments..." (Aspire, June 2006)
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Read an Excerpt
Please, Don't Ask Me How I Am, Unless...
Beginning a healing conversation
How are you?
We ask that question all the time. It's usually a polite little greeting, just another way of saying hello. But we may not realize that this innocent-sounding greeting can cause stress for people who are going through difficult times. In these instances, it's important for us to be aware that when we ask that question, we need to consider if we're really willing to hear whatever the answer might be.
I had an unforgettable conversation with a woman whose mother was very ill. Maria's father had died a few months earlier, and her mother was at the point in her illness where she had signed a living will and was refusing life support. Maria's brother didn't agree with this decision. Maria was spending her days holding her brother's hand and comforting her mother. In the midst of all this, people were asking her, "How are you?"
"What goes through your mind is this," Maria explained. "You really want to know how I am? I'll tell you how I am. I feel like I'm losing it most of the time! I want to scream at my brother, scream at the doctors. I feel sad and empty. I've got to deal with medical policies, insurance, hospital administrators, my family, my mom, and somewhere in there my so-called normal life. So tell me, just how do I answer this question? Do I tell you how I really am? Or do I do what most of us do and smile or grimace a little and sigh, 'Oh, I'm fine, holding up.' Do I just keep the conversation flowing past any sticky points of emotional meltdown?"
Maria continued explaining how difficult it was for her to knowwhat to say when people wanted to know how she was doing. "I know they mean well, but do you know what often happens? If I start to tell them how I really am, they interrupt and try to make me feel better by telling me their stories. Sometimes they want my sympathy for them. Sometimes they give me advice. Sometimes they try to take over and fix things. Sometimes they say, 'Oh,' and change the subject.
"What's hard is that I figure it's OK to say 'I'm fine' to the folks I don't really know, because I don't feel it would be fair to burden them with the truth. But with close friends, I'd like to be straight. Instead, sometimes I feel that it's my job to keep them from feeling too bad about what's happening with me. Most days, I say as little as possible and figure that no one really wants to know how I am. It would be too depressing, and they'd feel that they'd either have to walk away or try to fix things for me. All I really want is for people to listen to me. Not to fix. Not to advise. Not to tell me their stories yet. To be a harbor where I can bring my boat in and toss about and eventually settle down for a while."
Sometimes people want to talk and unload all the overwhelming, scary, frustrating stuff that's happening. Sometimes people would rather share a little silence with you. Other times it's nice for them to be able to say, "Right now I don't really want to talk about it--maybe later--but thanks for asking."
Struggling with "How are you?" can present an overwhelming number of choices of what to say and what not to say. It sounds like such a little thing, to avoid asking someone such an open-ended, all-encompassing question like "How are you?" To signal that you are open to hearing back from them something more than a weary "Fine," you can try "Do you want to talk about anything that happened today?" Or "Is there anything I can do to support you after the day you've had today?" Or "I don't know what to say right now, but I'd like you to know I care about you. Is there anything you want to talk about?"
People in difficult situations appreciate it when you don't ask them to give you the big picture. That's why asking them a question about how things are at this moment is easier than asking them how they are. Focusing in on the smaller picture enables them to tell you, "Well, at this moment, I'm OK; yesterday was rough, though." Or they could respond by saying something as straightforward as "Right now I could use a nap and a neck rub."
Another way to make an opening connection is to just let them know you care and that you aren't seeking information at all. You can tell them: "You've been in my thoughts." Or "I wish I were there to give you a hug, help you pack, take you where you need to go." Or "I've been trying to think of a way to support you. Would this help... ?"
Once the conversation is open, you might wonder what to say next. Remember that conversation isn't always a back-and-forth exchange, taking turns to talk and listen. It's not just about you being quiet so that then you can say what you've been thinking about while the other person was talking. Healing conversations are about pausing to tune in to what others need or want to say and what, if anything, they are able to hear from you at that moment. Healing conversations also make room for comfortably sharing silence.
There's another factor to consider when you want to take a healing conversation to the next level. Consider your relationship to the person. Sometimes the fact that you know each other well may make the person feel more comfortable in being blunt with you. Oddly enough, sometimes it will make the person feel too vulnerable. Don't assume you know which way someone else will feel. When you don't know someone well, you may actually be able to provide what is needed most: compassionate listening without judgment. If you are uncertain of how deep to get into a conversation with someone you don't know well, just pause and acknowledge, "I don't know you very well, but I'd like to do whatever I can to support you, even though I'm not sure what that would be. I'm willing to try." If you know the person well, you might take the conversation to the next level by reflecting what you sense your friend is feeling, not just what was said.
When people are having a rough time, usually the first question we ask them is "How are you?" because we think it's a way to open up the conversation and to show that we care. Here's another way to look at it: if you are trying to comfort people who are dealing with difficult situations, they will bless you for not making the "How are you?" question the first one. Ask about their work or their family or about almost anything else to give them a little relief from once again explaining what a rough time they are having getting through this trying experience. They want to be treated like whole individuals, not just as people in a challenging situation that is taking over their identity. Perhaps after listening carefully for a while, you may not even have to ask how they are because they will have told you in their own way.
What People are saying about this
—Thomas L. Goodgame, president emeritus, Westinghouse (CBS) Television Group
"Although understanding how to comfort someone only comes with living through difficult times, Nance's book helps you get started...taking those first steps toward helping someone in distress."
—Niki Tsongas, wife of the late U.S. Senator, Paul Tsongas
"Healing Conversationswhat a beautiful concept. Not only does Nance Guilmartin offer a multitude of wise suggestions to help us show we care with our words, but just as important, she teaches us how to listen. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn how to really be there for those they care about."
—Beverly Engel, author, The Power of Apology
"After 30 years of working with people in pain, I have heard too many 'unhealing' conversations. It is time for all of us to learn that one word of kindness to someone in pain can begin their recovery. This book teaches us how to pause long enough to listen in to the silence of another's pain and to facilitate the body's potential to heal itself."
—James Walaski, Past Chair, American Massage Therapy National Sports Massage Education Council, Massage Therapist for the New York Yankees 1996-98, Keynote speaker at the 1997 Australian National Massage Therapy convention
"In twenty years of coaching managers to have difficult conversations, and having many of them myself, I realize that the fear we have in having that tough talk is actually worse than the conversation itself. [These] stories remove some of the stumbling blocks and [these] words, once read, are transformed into personal courage."
—Gwendy Longyear-Hayden, director, Human Capital Solutions Resources Connection
"Practical, friendly, and thoughtful guide for communication at home, school, and the workplace when confronting the challenge of healing broken relationships."
—Badi G. Foster president, Phelps-Stokes Fund, former director of Tufts University's Lincoln Filene Center for Citizenship and Public Affairs
"A tremendously important book that I could have used a hundred times before. Everyone who knows anyone in pain should read this book. It speaks right to the heart of the matter."
—Richard Carlson, Author of Don't Sweat the Small Stuff
"Healing Conversations helps us to find the language of the heart for ourselves and for those whose lives we touch."
—Frances Hesselbein, chairman of the Board of Governors of the Peter F. Drucker Foundation and past chief executive officer of Girl Scouts of America, USA
"Oh! Ms. Guilmartin! Where were you when I needed you! This little book is bang on. Would that I had it in my pocket every time I needed it the last 30 years. The pages would be threadbare."
—Thomas L. Goodgame, President Emeritus Westinghouse (CBS) Television Group
"Nance Guilmartin's Healing Conversations is an extraordinary, comprehensive blueprint for dealing with the slings and arrows of daily, stressful, sometimes hurting life. There are "healing conversations" for divorce, depression, sadness, separation, anger, loss. Especially after the tragedy of September 11, this book offers great comfort."
—Jeffrey Fox, Author, How to Become CEO: The Rules for Rising to the Top of Any Organization
"Like a healing conversation, this book teaches readers how to plumb the depths of their own experiences so that they are better prepared to hear the stories told by others. Nance Guilmartin leads her readers to understand how they can offer the healing power of compassionate conversation."
—Rev. Ellen C. Chahey, Minister of Visitation, Federated Churches of Hyannis, MA
"Your book will help clergy like myself to be more attuned to what people in trouble are saying. Hopefully, with God's help, we will guide them to hold onto life and help them see that it can be lived with meaning. I am speaking to my colleagues about having you come talk to us about your book. It will be a great teaching tool."
—Reverend Aram Marashlian, Secretary, Massachusetts' Firefighters Chaplains Association
"Healing Conversations offers a positive, empathetic approach to helping people in need. It puts them at ease. It also prepares us for how to use a humanitarian approach to dis-ease-that state when those of us who are trying to comfort someone, find ourselves ill at ease. Doctors, nurses, patients and their families all need your book, right now."
—Rudi Ansbacher, M.D., President The International Society for The Study of Humanistic Aspects of Medicine
"A Practical, friendly and thoughtful guide for communication at home, school, and the workplace when confronting the challenge of healing broken relationships. Required reading for civil discourse on implications of WTC disaster."
—Badi G. Foster, president, Phelps-Stokes Fund, former director of Tufts University's Lincoln Filene Center for Citizenship and Public Affairs
Especially after the tragedy of September 11, this book offers great comfort.
Meet the Author
Nance Guilmartin is a four-time regional Emmy award-winning broadcast journalist, business advisor, and community service advocate. As a Westinghouse Broadcasting senior executive, she helped launch national awareness initiatives, including the Designated Driver Program and the For Kids' Sake and Time To Care campaigns. Prior to her television career, she served as press secretary to the late U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas. Her listening skills developed as a young news writer at CBS radio in Boston. Today she challenges organizations and executives to achieve breakthroughs and unlock hidden opportunities.
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