Let 'Em Feel

“Cheer up.”

“It’s okay.”

“It could be worse.”

“Don’t feel bad.”

Have you ever heard any of the above after you lost a match, had trouble nailing a technique sequence, or got injured? I have no doubt that the person who said it to you was trying to be supportive, and I have certainly said similar things to others, but more recently I have tried to become more precise with my language and to recognize the message I am actually sending when I say certain things.

Possibly as a result of my life coach training and the courses I am taking toward a masters’ degree in mental health counseling, I have become increasingly deliberate about not telling anyone what to do; in both coaching and mental health counseling, the professional’s role is not to pass judgment or tell others what to do, but rather to listen and help clients tap into what they feel will be best for their lives. And as jiu-jitsu instructors and practitioners, sometimes this may mean not trying to talk a teammate or a student out of a funk. Of course, this is not true of technical coaching, and if you have a whiner on your hands, a “Snap out of it” might be warranted. However, if your student or teammate has a real concern to process, my personal bias is that a good way to be supportive is to let them feel the feelings.

So what to do if you want to comfort someone or help them move past a bad patch without discounting their feelings or putting them on the defensive? Here are some thoughts:

Validate: When someone tells you they are feeling bad, chances are they were feeling vulnerable when they did so. Revealing our soft meaty insides is risky. It means we must trust that the person on the receiving end will be receptive rather than dismissive. And saying, “Don’t feel bad” may seem supportive to you, because you are saying you want the person to feel better than they do, but the fact is that they don’t. So, telling them to stop feeling bad is like telling them they are wrong to feel bad, which means that now, in addition to feeling bad, they feel bad for feeling bad.

Instead of giving commands, consider validating the person’s feeling and then asking if the person would like to share more. For instance: “That’s a drag. I can see why you would feel that way. Do you want to talk about it?”

Investigate: A friend of mine has a great strategy for being an effective support system for others. When someone who is feeling bad comes to her, she listens. Then she asks, “What would you like from me?” I remember the first time she asked me this I was brought up a little short, and I did not know. She continued, “Well, do you want my opinion, or do you want me to listen carefully, or do you want me to tell you I agree with everything you say?” At first, I thought she was being snarky, but it was a genuine question. I quickly realized it was a brilliant way to be held accountable for what I needed and to increase the likelihood that the person I was turning to could provide it for me. Sometimes I do want advice, but sometimes I just want to vent, and if the other person feels the need to fix things, we could end up on different wavelengths, mine unsure of what I want but sure I did not get it, the other person’s well-meaning but misguided.

Commiserate: It may be appropriate to tell the person that they are not alone in feeling the way they do. This does not mean one-upsmanship (“Oh yeah? You think YOU’RE feeling bad? Well wait till I tell you how lousy MY day has been!”) or implying that the person should stop being a delicate flower (“Yeah, everyone feels that way. It sucks for them too.”). It could mean acknowledging that frustration, sadness, fear, and disappointment are part of life, and that the person is not alone in feeling this way. (“This just doesn’t ever feel good, does it?”)

Advocate: I am a big believer in next steps. Kind words and supportive energy goes a long way. But eventually the person is going to have to go home, deal with other people, or otherwise move on from the supportive environment we have, we hope, created for them. At this point, I may ask the person, “What could you do right now that would feel helpful?” Again, the answer could be anything from “Kick rocks” to “Sulk” to “Think about what I did wrong and think about how to fix it” to “Yell at a cloud.” Regardless of what it is—within reason, of course—support it. You do not have to do it yourself, but you can advocate for the other person to do it if they think it will help them.

Feeling bad is a fact of life. We may not be able to avoid it or to help others do so, but we can work at recognizing what we need and working to give others what they need in order to be able to move on.

How do you support your students and teammates when they are having a hard time? Post your experiences to comments.