Colleague in Pain? What Leaders Should – and Shouldn’t – Say

We recently marked the one-year anniversary of the global pandemic’s arrival in our country. One constant for the past 12 months has been this: everyone has suffered. In my conversations with clients, it’s become apparent that leaders are often the frontline defense against the growing workplace mental health crisis that’s consumed our nation. When a colleague is in pain, what should a leader say? Equally important, what words are best left unsaid?

Far from being just a feel-good slogan, there are business and personal benefits to displaying compassion at work. But not all leaders are accustomed to offering soothing words. In business, statistics, “pep talks” and motivational speeches tend to rule the day. Here’s a wonderful, easy-to remember concept that can help leaders offer appropriate words of comfort, but most importantly, direct those words to the correct people, at the correct time. It’s called The Ring Theory and it was developed by clinical psychologist Susan Silk and mediation expert Barry Goldman. The Ring Theory, which they explain in their Los Angeles Times article, How Not to Say the Wrong Thing, helps people understand:

  1. How to direct compassionate and helpful comments to those who are suffering.
  2. How to vent their own emotions in an appropriate way.

Imagine you are drawing a ring of concentric circles. The Ring Theory states that the person suffering the actual crisis (let’s say, a person who has been unexpectedly hospitalized) is at the center of the ring. Their immediate loved ones are in the next ring outward. The next ring out from “immediate loved ones” are extended family and close friends . . .and so on.

Here’s the key communication take-away of The Ring Theory: the person in the center of the Ring gets to vent, complain, express feelings to anyone in any circle. They are the center of the Ring and therefore they need everyone’s support. 

Anyone outside of the center of the Ring follows this rule: Comfort IN, Dump OUT.

In other words, if you are in the third band of the ring (for example, you are the leader of the hospitalized person’s spouse) you may offer words of comfort INWARD to the loved ones and the hospitalized person. If you are worried for your colleague (the hospitalized person’s spouse) and feel the need to talk about your worry, you can express, vent or DUMP outward to others in your ring, or to a ring further out on the circles. 

Here is a great video that shows how The Ring Theory works:

Here’s how leaders can use The Ring Theory in practice:

These phrases are not helpful moving inward on the ring:

  • “At least . . .” (this minimizes their pain)
  • “My (daughter, sister, brother, friend) had this happen too. . .” (hijacks their story)
  • “I know how you feel” (maybe you do, maybe you don’t)

Comfort IN: Phrases that are helpful when commenting inward on the ring:

  •  “I’m so sorry this has happened.
  • “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling.”
  • “I’m here. Do you want to talk about it?” (or, if appropriate, refer to company employee assistance program)
  • “What would be most helpful right now for you? Can I call someone?”
  • “Don’t worry about work right now. I’ve got it covered.”

Dump OUT: Phrases you can say to the outer rings to manage your emotions:

  •  “I’m worried about (name of person) or the ______ family; I can’t imagine what they must be going through”
  • “This has been such a tough year for everyone at our company”
  • “I’m exhausted by all of this.”
  • “I wish there was someone who could share this burden with me.”

So remember, when you want to help someone who is suffering, provide comfort IN and vent your feelings OUT. It’s a way to show compassionate leadership during difficult times.

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