Just to listen..
The best word to describe our world before the virus hit is frenetic. Wiki tells us it means ”fast and energetic, in a rather wild and uncontrolled way”. Not a bad definition, but it misses the despair, the feeling of high risk and the isolation that frenetic people have. The pandemic changed all that. Not for simply the duration but forever. Sadly, it didn’t do away with any of the three things I have listed – and actually increased the worst aspect of frenetic – the isolation. For a while it increased the feeling of risk quite violently, too. As for despair, we have all seen how that has spread – a pandemic of its own. Now we are in a phase of rather ‘laborious worry’, a sort of “will it ever end?”
Meanwhile, friends, colleagues, strangers are feeling all sorts of pressure on their minds, some of which they cannot account for and most of which terrify them. We are all frightened at some stage of life. It’s usually about Partners or Pennies. The one may be threatening to go away; the other may have gone. If it is both, the pressure is seriously greater. When the pressure becomes too much our minds get confused and we lose our sense of direction. Those with a strong purpose fare best on this very stormy sea – but all are vulnerable.
What do you say to someone in a state of trauma or despair?
The answer is ‘As little as possible’. Sounds rather unkind, doesn’t it? But, instead of talking, you should be asking questions, not giving advice. It’s a useful idea for most things you do but when you are dealing with someone in a panic, it is essential. First of all, it is important that you collect the maximum amount of information about their state of mind. You need that to work out whether to get them to a hospital. When in doubt, do so. Hospitals are equipped to deal with mental illness as well as with physical bumps.
You also need to get the person thinking. They don’t have to be very profound or intellectual thoughts – they just need to be thoughts. Initially, their thoughts will be about themselves. People like to talk about themselves and here’s one occasion when it is sensible that they should. But it is even better if your questions gradually move away from navel gazing to wider subjects – still as questions but more about the causes of the problem leading to panic. Covid has created a lot of problems but it has unearthed many more than it has made itself.
The problems we encountered in WWII were mostly ones that had been there for some time. Eisenhower, while Supreme Allied Commander, used to ask soldiers he was meeting for a second or third time “How’s the old problem?” Nobody ever told him there wasn’t one and the answers could be rather unnerving. “I had it cut off,” said one soldier showing the stump of an arm where the hand was missing. Another replied “I’m sorry to say that she died.” True, we all have an old problem and a pandemic is just the thing to bring it to the surface.
Ask more questions – they are useful as distractions, easing the pain of whatever is the root cause. A commitment to deal with someone in trouble is not just an agreement to talk to them once. It has to be longer term than that. The kind of problem you are dealing with is likely to be fairly entrenched. You won’t necessarily have to stay the whole course. Hopefully you can find others to share the effort with you. But you must be committed if it is going to work.
You will never know the value of ‘a chat’ with someone distressed by our VUCA world. Mental dragons may be roaming their unbalanced minds. Horrors of destitution may cloud their sleepless nights. They will think they have failed, may indeed have done so in the world’s economic terms. Guilt of imagined lost respect, anticipated painful old age, thoughts of being annihilated from family and friends, misconceptions of life in a sheltered home or hostel – all these are the stuff of mental disaster.
Society generally provides for those who have stumbled and fallen if it becomes necessary. And yet what may be needed as much as anything else is a chat.
It means giving your most precious asset, time.
It means getting the most valuable reward, a chance to help someone else.
Just for a chat. Just to listen.
The Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC) is holding a webinar talk and discussion on Tuesday, 27th October 10.00-11.30am SG time. www.sicc.com.sg tells you more.
We are offering a two-90-minute-Sessions mini programme on Asking Questions – free to the first five people who apply. firstname.lastname@example.org links you up.