How to comfort a colleague: 5 good tips

In 1991 Wendy Keller was involved in a terrible car accident that claimed the lives of her two small children and nearly took her own life. Today she is a successful speaker and literary agent. Here she offers some advice for people who may know a colleague grieving over a loss.

Your team is an organism. When one part is hurting, it disrupts the balance of the whole, the same way a ‘simple’ stubbed toe or cut on your finger can dramatically interrupt your ability to get things done.

When one member of your team is hurting because of a personal matter – a death, a divorce, a troubled child, scary diagnosis, a serious illness of a family member, caring for aging parents – the whole system at work can go off kilter.

Whether you are close to your colleague or not; whether you are the boss or a co-worker or even a subordinate, how can you comfort someone in a kind way that is still professional and helps restore the equilibrium of the team?

Here are five tips:

1. Be authentic. It’s perfectly normal and acceptable to be concerned about other people. It’s part of most people’s make up to be kind to others. If you feel like leaving a card on their desk, giving a hug or a word of encouragement, or providing additional support (a casserole? sending flowers?) go ahead. Just make sure you do what is real for you, not something you feel pressured to do.

2. Don’t preach. Now is not the time to talk about your divorce, what you did to straighten out your teenager, or how you felt the same when your dog died as they do now that their mother died. It’s not time to espouse your religious beliefs. “He’s with the Lord now” or “God wanted her home” are not appropriate to
say to anyone. Your personal opinion about why this bad thing happened is not welcome; keep quiet unless you are sincerely asked for your perspective.

3. Don’t pretend. If you know someone in your office is going through some major problem, even if you only know through the grapevine, don’t pretend you don’t know. In a calm voice, simply saying: “I heard you’re going through a rough time. I’m sorry for your suffering” is completely appropriate and adequate. If the person wants to discuss it with you, they will. Never, ever ask details unless you’re in a close enough relationship with the person. They’ll tell you if they choose to do so.

4. Offer to jelp. The normal workload may seem overwhelming to a colleague going through a personal tumult. You can certainly help by being sensitive to how much work you delegate, or by pitching in. Make it clear that this is “just to help out a bit” and not going to change your or the boss’s opinion of their competence or
value to the company.

5. Be respectful. There’s no one right way to get through a difficult time. You may judge the other person’s behaviour to be unhealthy in some way, or even inappropriate. Make no judgements, in your mind or out loud, not to the colleague nor to the other workers. Each relationship, each person, each set of circumstances is different.

Your best bet in helping another cope with their own crises is to simply be present, to listen if and when they want to talk, and to show in little ways that you are sympathetic. These five gentle steps will be greatly appreciated by the one who is suffering when they look back on this difficult time in their life.

 Wendy Keller is based in Chicago and specialises in addressing resilience – how to bounce back from anything life throws at you and thrive. Her inspirational story and a description of her speaking topics can be found at www.wendykeller.com

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