There are times in life when we shy away from saying what needs to be said because we are putting our discomfort ahead of the needs of the other person.

When someone around us – a work colleague, friend or acquaintance – experiences something unexpectedly bad we often don’t know how to react. They may have been made redundant, lost a loved one or had some other difficult circumstance or tragedy impact them.

I was chatting with a former work colleague recently who had just been made redundant. What surprised them and made the redundancy harder, was the reaction of work colleagues. They simply stopped speaking with them. The person felt like they had become ‘persona non-grata’.

I’ve no doubt that this person’s work colleagues didn’t react this way because they weren’t feeling for the person, nor it is likely that they intended for their behaviour to be mean. However, they felt awkward and uncomfortable, and were unsure about how the person was feeling and how they were reacting to the redundancy. Consequently, rather than step into a conversation that could be uncomfortable they walked away.

Their uncomfortableness and concern about saying the wrong thing, meant they did nothing – leaving this person feeling hurt, confused and isolated.

I’ve seen it happens plenty of times. When tragedy strikes, we are often lost for words.

Leigh Sales, in her brilliant book “Any Ordinary Day: blindsides, resilience and what happens after the worst day of your life“, recounts the story of a child whose mother had died, and how alone she felt at school because no one wanted to talk about it. The teachers and her friends didn’t know how to face the situation and so they acted as though nothing had happened.

In many situations, the uncertainty about what to say and a desire to say the right thing can find us wanting to take the easy option. We feel for the other person and what they are going through, but our discomfort over-rides our ability to reach out.

But when you say nothing, avoid the conversation or worse avoid the person impacted entirely you walk away from the opportunity to deepen a connection and more importantly, to show support for a person in need.

This is a time to connect, rather than to disconnect.

What do you do when you face these types of situations?

  • Firstly, acknowledge to yourself that you are feeling uncomfortable and that’s ok
  • Put yourself in the other person’s position and consider how you would like to be treated
  • Think about what the other person needs and communicate with them on their terms. This means reach out gently and in a way that invites them to communicate with you, but in a way that works for them. Don’t press for details
  • Find a form of communication that suits. It may be an email, a card or a phone call or a combination
  • Keep the initial communication simple – ‘I’m thinking of you, and if there’s anything you need let me know’. This is about opening the lines of communication and giving them the opportunity to respond if they want to
  • Don’t be surprised if you don’t get a response. People deal with bad experiences differently and consequently the person may not be in a position to respond to you. Give them space and time
  • Remember that this is about them and their needs, not you

Uncomfortable conversations come in all shapes and sizes and for a variety of reasons. Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable is an important part of living a whole and fulfilled life.

As Author Tim Ferris said: “A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.”

Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®

Michelle Gibbings is a change leadership and career expert and founder of Change Meridian. Michelle works with global leaders and teams to help them get fit for the future of work. She is the Author of ‘Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work’ and ‘Career Leap: How to Reinvent and Liberate Your Career’.