Updated: May 3, 2019
Do you think God cries? That was my first Hard Question. It came from a dying woman, 86 years old, who was reflecting on the tragedies she’d experienced in her lifetime.
Most of us remember being asked one of those Hard Questions: Who’s going to take care of my family? Is my buddy OK? Do you think she suffered? We remember trying to come up with an answer or trying to avoid giving one. Searching for the right words. Saying something trite or hollow that we immediately regretted. Feeling our own grief and sense of inadequacy. Fearing that, far from providing comfort or solace, our response actually made things worse.
Hard Questions don’t have easy answers. So how do we answer them without making things worse?
Accept that you can’t fix it. For those of us who are problem solvers, this is a tough one. But you can’t change the fact that someone is dying. You can’t bring back the buddy who was killed. You can’t erase the fact that someone may have suffered.
Remember it’s not about you. When you focus on how you’re going to answer, you’re not listening; you’re worrying about how you’re going to be perceived. But this isn’t about you – this is about them. Focus on what they are saying. Listen with your ears, your eyes, and your heart. (Here’s a helpful reminder: listening does not involve your mouth).
Communication is three-dimensional. Your body language and facial expressions, voice, and words are all part of your message. To be trustworthy they all need to be congruent. When communicating feelings and attitude, body language speaks the loudest. Start with open body language. If words are needed, use a clear, gentle voice. And if you must speak, always speak the truth.
Some questions don’t need answers; they just need to be heard. Is the person seeking information or a factual response, or are they simply seeking validation for what they are going through? Listen for the underlying emotion (e.g., pain, fear, anger). Acknowledge the emotion if needed. Be alongside them as they grapple with it and search for their own answers. Be present with their question. Often this means simply sitting in compassionate silence. Bearing witness to the Hard Question is powerful validation.
Some questions do need answers; answer them honestly. Sometimes the answer is I don’t know. Sometimes the answer is much harder: I’m so sorry… your buddy did not survive. You can’t sweeten that pill, so don’t try to sugar-coat it. Be direct and compassionate: use clear, respectful language. Acknowledge what they are experiencing and leave space for them to respond.
If this all sounds uncomfortable – it is. There’s no sense of satisfaction or success in addressing Hard Questions, nor should there be (because that would be about you). Second-guessing your words and actions is normal; take a deep breath and be confident in your purpose and intent. In the words of Carl Buehner, “They may forget what you said — but they will never forget how you made them feel.” Having the courage to be present, honest, and compassionate can make a difference when it matters most.
NavAid’s “Tongue-Tied: Navigating Difficult Conversations” workshops provide training for first responders, special assistance teams, and others who interact directly with affected individuals during crisis.