The Most Supportive Question You Can Ask Someone Who Is Sad, Struggling Or Broken-Hearted

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A hug, ear or just being there, ways to help someone struggling

Many of us are at a loss for words when someone we care about is sad, struggling, or heartbroken. All we know is we want to take their pain away and alleviate their burden. We may feel the need to 'fix' the problem by offering solutions and advice.

While well intended, doing so bypasses the opportunity for genuine connection and expression of empathy. It can lead to misunderstandings and more hurt feelings as the one you desperately want to help is often left feeling invalidated and minimized.

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Don't know what to say when someone is hurting?

Having experienced significant loss in my life, I know all too well the struggle others have had to try to comfort me. Whether it was the death of my infant son, the divorce from my first husband, the diagnosis of epilepsy for my youngest child, or one of the many other painful experiences, friends and family did not know what to say or do. Often, my hurt was deepened by well-meaning sentiments and opinions.

When you can embrace emotions as highly subjective experiences, for example, what one person finds thrilling, another may find distressing, you can approach the hurting person without prejudice. You can make the positive impact you intend. We tend to respond to other's pain with what we think we would need if the tables were turned. In other words, what you think you should do to help and what they need you to do could likely be different. This is why being present, listening, and asking is so important. Recognizing their emotional experiences may differ from your own eliminates your assumptions and misinterpretations based on your perspective.

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It helps to have a plan for what to say to someone who is struggling

There is a question so powerful, so empathetic, it has the potential to shift someone out of their despair and create a compassionate connection.

Hurt people sometimes do not know how to communicate what they need from the people in their lives. While you want to help them, asking 'how can I meet your needs?' may not yield an answer beyond, 'I don't know.' However, by offering this one simple yet powerful question, you are making a suggestion that gives them options. It can be a lifeline in the storm of their emotions and a compass for you to know what to do next.

The question is ...

The big question: Do you want to be helped, hugged or heard?

In a recent New York Times article, special-education teacher Heather Stella communicated that when she has an overwhelmed or agitated student, she asks this question and responds accordingly. It's not just for kids. It's for all of us because it not only shows empathy, but also willingness to show up in the moment with what they need most.

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It's simple approach to support, and it puts control back in the struggling person's hands

Consider posing this question the next time you are at a loss for words. From there, let them guide the conversation. Lean in. Ask open-ended questions to understand their feelings and circumstances better. When they are ready, they may ask for your advice and solutions.

By first offering empathy through this one carefully chosen question, you open the door to understanding and hold the key to providing solace and support during their most challenging moments. Your genuine concern and willingness to connect can be the lifeline someone in need has been searching for and remind them they are not alone in their journey through sadness, struggle, or heartbreak.

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Ann Papayoti, PCC, is a relationship coach, author, and speaker helping people help themselves through losses and transitions. She helps people untangle from their past and heal their hearts.