How not to say the wrong thing: Comfort IN, dump OUT

“The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”

Dorothy Nevill (British writer 1826-1913)

From How not to say the wrong thing

One of my followers raised some interesting questions regarding responding to those who are in pain or are going through tough times: what to do and what to say. As everyone reacts and copes differently, the worst fears we have is the fear of saying the wrong thing to the person who is going through very tough times.

A few months ago one of my friends posted on Facebook a link to an article on Los Angeles Times on the ‘Ring Theory’ of kvetching: comfort in, dump out. It goes like that:

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma (parents, children, spouses etc.). 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.

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.

Remember, you can say whatever you want if you just wait until you’re talking to someone in a larger ring than yours.

From How not to say the wrong thing

From How not to say the wrong thing


14 thoughts on “How not to say the wrong thing: Comfort IN, dump OUT

  1. Reblogged this on jack joseph's mom and commented:
    This is amazing advice (etiquette, even?) for those near someone in pain/grief…

  2. Sometimes we (I) go through life oblivious to our ignorance towards situations like this… Until one day we are faced with it and screw it all up. Much needed read. Thanks!

  3. Thanks for this advice – I often find myself in these difficult situations where I’m not sure what to say 🙂

  4. Often times people are suffering because of some kind of delusion or misperception of reality. Sometimes they need to be knocked out of this which might cause them more pain in the short term but lead them to see things more clearly.

    If we only coddle people then they aren’t going to get anywhere.

    I don’t think there should be generalised rules for this kind of thing. Depends on the person and the situation.

    • Otrazhenie says:

      Very good point. It does depend on the situation. The ‘Ring Theory’ applies to situations when people are in ‘pain’ because they lost a close family member or are facing a serious life-threatening illness. There could be a lot of other situations in life when that theory won’t work well. Thanks for your insightful comment.

  5. aspenlinmer says:

    Great ideas! Thank you for sharing. I think when we are responding to those in pain it is really helpful to have a guideline like this. It really follows along with what i was saying in the essay on my blog as well.

    When Snape came to Dumbledore, Dumbldedore didn’t just start spouting off all that he had been through and how he therefore understood what Severus was going through. Later when we understand what Dumbledore went through with Arriana we know that he really did understand the type of loss and regret that Snape was facing…however Dumbledore responded without clichés (as I mention) and with the model you present here.

    It really does come down to listening a lot of the time…but sometimes people in these situations have honest questions and needs that they actually need a response to as well.


  6. Such a great model for us all, all the time. It’s especially timely since this is Depression Awareness and Education Month (among other important things) and it’s sometimes hard to know what to say and not to say to those suffering from Depression.
    Thanks for this!

  7. […] article by way of one of my favorite blogs, called Otrazhenie. Please check out the blog article here. There is a lot of interesting embellishment, and the site is well worth a […]

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