Wednesday, April 10, 2013

How not to say the wrong thing (the ring theory)

I read an interesting article by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman on 'How Not To Say the Wrong Thing.' You know, when something bad happens to someone, or those awkward situations where you don't know what to say, and you're tempted to give some unsolicited advice or make a stupid comment. The answer, they say, is based on something called the 'Ring Theory,' and operates under the principle of "comfort in; dump out." It is illustrated at right, and works like this...

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie's aneurysm, that's Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie's aneurysm, that was Katie's husband, Pat. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order. One of Susan's patients found it useful to tape it to her refrigerator. 
Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, "Life is unfair" and "Why me?" That's the one payoff for being in the center ring. 
Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings. 
When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you're going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn't, don't say it. Don't, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don't need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, "I'm sorry" or "This must really be hard for you" or "Can I bring you a pot roast?" Don't say, "You should hear what happened to me" or "Here's what I would do if I were you." And don't say, "This is really bringing me down." 
If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that's fine. It's a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring. 
Comfort IN, dump OUT.

You can read the full article by clicking the link above. I think this is pretty good advice. As they say, "Remember, you can say whatever you want if you just wait until you're talking to someone in a larger ring than yours... And don't worry. You'll get your turn in the center ring. You can count on that."

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