How to be present when others are losing it

Do you struggle to know how to be present with someone when they are upset or angry, or when you are tired or going through it yourself? I’m very often struck by how people can lack the ability to “be with” people emotionally, especially those who work professionally with people in challenging situations. It’s like our buttons get pushed or we feel inadequate or lack the resources we need. Somehow, people say, they “aren’t qualified” to handle it.

It will be all right
It will be all right

When people kick off

I remember once on a Gestalt training course unpacking a whole load of grief around the impact of divorce on my contact with my younger son, and how I verbalised it to the group in a way that the facilitator later said she was “out of it” for the duration of my work. I recall she was a parent herself. So this can challenge even seasoned professionals. Luckily I had another who  worked with me.

Yet this doesn’t just apply to professionals. Anybody can face this at times. What about when your partner kicks off about some hurt or pain and it’s you that happens to be there – and they need you to be there? What do you do? Do you do what so many do, and shift about uncomfortably, tell people “not to mind” and “it will be OK”, and not get upset, etc? Who are you really helping here, the person kicking off, or actually you yourself? Are you really telling them to stop?

What we don’t like is being faced with powerful emotions that tap into our own stuff, especially if it touches our own doubts and inadequacies. Yet, there are resources available, if you choose to access them.

Being resourceful: self awareness and self management

One is self awareness and self management, in this case the ability to be aware of your own process and how your buttons can get triggered by other people’s stuff. It helps to know yourself enough to know what is your stuff in this situation, of course! This is often all about personal development – that doing your own journey bit, dare I say, that many of us are today afraid to do. It is also about how you self manage, in this case choose not to get caught up in your own stuff but put it on one side, the rule of epoché in Gestalt terms.


Another is the ability to be present, to be right there in the moment, thoughts and feelings on pause (I’ll say more about that in a moment), in the “here and now”, still in yourself, centred, at One as I keep writing on this blog, connected with some energy  centre or chakra within like your heart centre region or, in the case of powerful emotion, perhaps your power centre in the  solar plexus region. So that you are aligned with  Source as you are “with” another. “Being with” is all about being present with them. So you are truly “with” them, in support, with mind, body and soul, right there in the moment.

Empathy and respect

Your stance matters hugely too. So think about  it. Here is needed Carl Rogers’ empathy and unconditional positive regard. So you respect utterly the other person right there where they are and what is going on for them. No judgement (this can be tough, but it really matters). No conditions attached. In fact  you  are unattached to everything, including how you feel. You have to let go of all that. And you empathise with them, which is to seek as far as humanly possible to see things from their perspective, although  you cannot “know how they feel”. Thus you can hear their story. And you hear it like you get it. So that they feel heard, which is what so many people need. They may not need to be fixed (which is what so many men try to do  with  women, by the way!). Here’s where you truly stop and be with them in their pain.

Then they will feel supported. You don’t have to take their side, or agree with them, or blame them. Just be there. In peace, bringing peace. Om shanti.

I coach people and give training in these core skills. To contact  me, click here

Are we losing our ability to have empathy and to connect?

We must have all done it, a gathering round the dinner table, and there’s a quiet moment as everybody is on their phones or tablets, with snippets of conversation in between. Perfectly normal, you might think: everybody is checking their phones. Except that that is what occurs a lot right through the year where people are together or alone. This world is now getting brilliantly connected. Yet do we notice any disconnect with others we’re with, our lack of attunement to others, that we don’t have empathy?

Being a big user myself but also a coach of relationship and interpersonal dynamics, I’m frequently observing what occurs in the use of the gadget in one’s hand. As the law now recognises, people can’t effectively concentrate on driving and use a mobile phone. The focus gets drawn into the latter and people miss crucial and sudden events on the road, with sometimes fatal results. When we focus on our phone, our attention is drawn away from what is occurring around us. Thus we are at best only partially present to those around us. To another, it can feel, if they are so bothered, that “the lights are on but nobody is at home”. Disconnected.

Connected but so disconnected

The “inner world” of the phone or tablet is very absorbing. It is also very addictive. It’s now reckoned that people up to the age of 18 now spend over 7 hours a day so connected. However, more concerning is the potential cost to interpersonal relationships. It has been found from social-scientific studies by Sarah Konrath that there are now 40% lower levels of empathy for the age group 25-39, that is roughly the age range of Millennials or Generation Y, than earlier age groups had, along with a corresponding rise in narcissism. It is also being suggested that people are losing the ability to cope with “doing nothing” and where we don’t have a distraction.

What empathy means

To have empathy is arguably the crucial area of development for people interpersonally, and a fundamental aspect of emotional intelligence. As we grow and mature, we realise more and more the need to understand and relate to others and take their needs into account. Empathy is the ability to tune into another and get a sense of where they are coming from, to gain some awareness of their perspective. Without “social awareness”, people can struggle to connect at a meaningful level and others may sense they do not really have a relationship with them in a way that fulfills.

Being connected with others is not a digital occurrence although that is one way we can communicate. What is crucial is the ability to be present and aware of another, right now, in the moment, person to person, in the room, with all our senses engaged, and with our thinking, feeling and behaviour. We hear, see, feel, smell and taste another. Psychologically we are “there” for another, available, conscious, valuing, caring. We notice what happens for another. We respond appropriately. We become attuned and resonate, and become as one.

You don’t get all that from a screen.

The challenge is that there are many who don’t have good levels of empathy. It’s a major weakness for those in business, for example. Leaders who lack empathy are poor leaders at the people level. If you are in a job where people skills matter, it can be costly. In personal relationships it is what makes for a good relationship: how often do you hear people complain that their partners are not “there” for them when they need them?

The danger is that people don’t know what they are not aware of. Thus building self awareness is an important starting point, and getting feedback from others. We can change things once we know what’s really going on, what we need to fix. And we ourselves have to take charge of it, to make the changes.

A fundamental human need is relationship. We are social beings. Being disconnected from others is a major source of unhappiness and depression.

Feeling empathy needs not to cloud your judgement

In the emotional stakes it is good to see empathy now playing a big part and yet there are cautionary points to be made. Just because you empathise with someone doesn’t mean you do what they want, but it can play a powerful part in building bonds and connections and in influence.

In the last US Presidential election Obama was able to make great play of his opponent’s perceived lack of empathy. For example he was able to portray Romney as uncaring with regard to the alleged 47% of the population who he said was government-dependent. Thus whether you are empathic (“I feel your pain”) can make a difference in how you are perceived and impact how you deal with situations and people.

As this blog has pointed out in numerous articles, empathy is a key factor in emotional intelligence and thus in your ability to build relationships and influence people. However, it is not enough to simply empathise with another. You also need to act appropriately on the data received. As you can read on the above link, there’s plenty of evidence of people getting another’s perspective but then not responding as one might expect, for example compassion not being aroused and a different course of action being followed that might well not serve the interests of the one with whom you might experience empathy.

Thus alongside empathy needs also to go a set of values, principles for action, that guide one’s choices. One might have concern for the suffering of others but instead of a government bail-out one might advocate the dismantling of state aid as an action more likely to serve the interests of the sufferers. One group of people may hold different value sets to another. Then again, having empathy is not to be confused with sympathy. “I feel your pain” can mean being caught up in another’s stuff, whereas the effective use of empathy is to attempt to understand another’s perspective but not to be so caught up. In other words it needs not to cloud one’s judgement. This is an attribute observed in well-trained counsellors and psychotherapists. Having empathy can give you more choices and can potentially enable you to respond to others in ways that shows awareness of their perspective and that you have taken account of it. But it can still mean you can take tough decisions when you need to.

A powerful way this can be seen is when a person, for example, devotes time to hearing someone’s perspective, and showing they have genuinely heard, such that the speaker really feels “heard”. Even though the decision may not go the way the speaker might have hoped, the fact that they got to put their position and felt heard makes a difference. Yet along with that there is also the decision made and whether it was fair and reasonable. Hence, even with the display of empathy, other principles come into play.

Thus empathy can play a powerful part in the skill-set of the self aware, emotionally intelligent person, but they should not let it divert them from trusting their judgement and taking what they genuinely believe, according to their well-tested values, is the appropriate course of action.

Forgiveness can mean you need to let go of something

Forgiving another can be the really hard bit in dealing with a problem in relationships. Yet that’s so often what we’re told to do, forgive. But is this true forgiveness?

Part of the problem lies in the term itself. People associate forgiveness with “letting people off”, as though what we are supposed to do is go and say, “You’ve done this but I forgive you.” This can be really difficult, especially as there’s things like hurt pride and a lingering sense that the other person was really at fault. So we have blame involved and we also don’t want to be seen to back down.

It can be even harder when we have done something too to the other person, because we fear we may have to go and admit something. Thus the sense of “losing face” can be all the more problematic.Then we might fear we’re giving power to the other person, or that they have the moral advantage.

Human relationships are stuffed full of all this. It’s how countries have ended up at war and whole peoples have suffered genocide, let alone the feuds and private wars that go on. Backing down, as it seems, is impossible.

Here’s another definition of forgiveness: “giving up the right to punish and truly letting go of all resentment.” There’s a big difference here. This is about a shift in you, without any expectation from the other person. It’s unconditional, non-judgemental. It involves letting go, giving up all the stuff that’s going on inside, all the blame, the judgements, the beliefs about what we think the other person or persons did or said, all the stories, all the allegations, all the so-called “facts” (really points of view), all the hurt we feel, all the pain, all the costs, all the hurt pride and the damaged ego, the whole lot.

This is the hard bit. Letting go of something in ourselves. Going and saying “I forgive you” to another is surprisingly quite easy, especially as you may not actually mean it. But to let go of it in yourself, that’s the real journey, the real healing: letting go of all that anger, upset and bitterness. Peace at last!

I coaching people in improving and maximising their relationships. Click here.

Letting go can be so hard to do

You might hear people say, when someone is struggling with a problem or challenge, “why not just let go of it”? Letting go can sound easy to say, but it can also be really hard. Like letting go of relationships we’ve been in, breaking up with someone we love, where we’ve invested a lot of energy and emotional capital. You might know you need to let go of a situation you are in but a part of you just keeps on at it, like a dog with a bone.

When a separating couple are in dispute and won’t let go

I’ve been reminded recently of this struggle in a situation where two people have been in dispute, during the process of ending a relationship. Each had a very clear view of their position and believed they were right and could “win” their case. However, while for one party it didn’t hurt, for the other it was likely to be very painful. Somehow she needed to let go of the matter and make a settlement, even if it was costly. That would be a strategic move that would avoid worse to come. However, it was hard to let go. She had invested a huge amount in the dispute and believed strongly that she had suffered injustice. Despite being aware at one level of the need to let go, another, very big part of her was very caught up in the injustice. She would even have all sorts of fantasies about engaging the other in a physical fight and being very violent, and of course “winning”. It would keep her awake at night.

I put “win” in inverted commas because I would suggest that people don’t really win, since it tends to come at a cost and victors end up with further issues later on. Yet “win/lose” and its concomitant, “right/wrong,” is another of those ego games that go on, another way we play out the drama of relationship at the ego level.

So what is this investment that we make that we find so hard to let go of?

Our investment in holding on and not letting go

Is it that what drives us forward, that keeps us engaged and with antlers locked, is really the fear of losing, of seemingly admitting we’re “wrong”? And what’s that about? Often it is the fear of the shame we might feel. People really dislike shame and will do all sorts to avoid it. Yet, what we resist we get and it keeps driving us. Is it the feeling of injustice, of having been “wronged”, of something not being “fair”, or a sense of having suffered an injury, or of being a victim? All sorts of old hurts can come with this of course, going back a very long time.

Maybe also there’s even something else behind that. It can be very useful to explore our own pain in a conflict and get what’s really going on, what’s really driving our behaviour, even if it seems like the other has “caused” it. Using the power of developing your self awareness is one way to do this. So, in our example, there’s perhaps the pain of separation, the “breaking of the interpersonal bridge”, as Kaufman calls it in “The Psychology of Shame.”  This is primal stuff, going way back, and yet is so often core to how we are in the world as humans. It was when we fundamentally expected something of another but were thwarted or got the message that it was wrong. The severance of the connection is felt as shame, and we can feel it acutely, but we resist it and over time get into battle over it.

Hence the connection also with relationship, which we don’t like to let go of either!

It’s a tough one, since we are really only playing out our drama with ourselves. The real disconnect is within, but we play it out in the experience of duality in the world out there. Letting go of the drama of conflict and injustice opens up the pathway to inner peace. We are no longer at conflict with ourselves. Letting go is often accompanied by a sense of peace. All there really is is One. So, it’s worth remembering, whenever we feel reluctant to let go, that what we are really resisting is our inner truth of Oneness. It’s another way to re-member.