Supporting someone atop an Issue Iceberg

Updated: Oct 2, 2020

Despite my openness and frankness in the online world, I am a really private person, particularly when I’m facing a personal challenge. I’m terrible at asking for help, I just stuff whatever it is that’s going on way down deep and get on with things.

So whenever anyone would ask me ‘R U OK?’ I’d provide a socially acceptable banal answer and move on with my day. Even the leaders I reported to would get the shrug off when they made enquiries.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this. Lots of us face things we don’t want to talk about. Embarrassing things, upsetting things, shameful things.

The issue is that by clamming up, loads of people (myself included) don’t get access the support we need to stay emotionally and physically well.

In my case it was infertility. I was so ashamed of what I was going through and consequently found it almost impossible to talk about with anyone. So I just didn’t. For about 3 years.

I think I did a pretty good job of covering the cracks, and a few fortuitous situations like my change in role helped, but I have no doubt the people I’d worked with for many years noticed something was up.

Reflecting back, it was a hugely isolating and difficult time made more difficult by my inability to share the load. And while hindsight is great, I’m not convinced I’d do much differently if I faced a similar challenge now. Some things are just too hard to share out loud.

So while the ‘R U OK?’ message is a REALLY important one, I wanted to use this blog post to talk about the ‘Issue Icebergs’ like me who hide the majority of their shit bits underneath the waterline.

Reflection 1: Focus on support not the story

I could acknowledge I was going through some tough stuff. What I didn’t want to do was talk about the details.

I know a lot of these Deep & Meaningful conversations traditionally start with ‘tell me what’s going on for you’ but I’d wriggle my way out of those faster than a bloody ferret!

I actually amended my own approach to supportive conversations based on my own experience. I switched from asking for details to seeking solutions. I substituted the dread inducing ‘what’s going on for you?’ question with ‘I don't need details, I just want to know how I can best support you through whatever is going on right now’.

That allows people to talk about what they need to make their lives easier or sustain their performance without having to disclose the distressing details.

Being able to say ‘having autonomy over my start/finish times be so helpful’ without having to explain why would have been fabulous for me all those years ago.

Reflection 2: Reconsider your communication channels

I hate being upset in front of others. I get all blotchy and red and snotty. I also become horribly inarticulate and the stress of having potentially overshared as I reflect on that conversation for the next 3 days (ok, 3 weeks...) is truly awful.

I know having heavy conversations by text or other electronic means is generally frowned upon (dumping someone by text for example), but maybe we need a rethink?

The joy of email or any other written communication for an introvert like me is the ability to really craft my message so I can say what I need to clearly; without tears or snot or embarrassment. I can explain my scattered thoughts much more effectively in writing than I can verbally.

Why not offer this as an option to someone? Simply saying ‘I get that this might be tough to talk about right now so if you’d prefer to share your story by email you can absolutely do that’ might allow someone to open up when they otherwise wouldn’t or couldn’t.

Reflection 3: Be bloody real

I did eventually share bits of my journey with people in my team. My favourite response from a colleague was a ‘shit mate, that sounds like an awful experience. I’m sorry you’ve been through all that’ as she poured me an extra extra large glass of wine.

There was no pity. No platitudes. No ‘helpful’ advice. Just genuine empathy and acknowledgement of my experience. I have always appreciated that response (and the wine!).

Other less cool responses when I explained what I was going through included ‘have you tried just getting really drunk?’ or ‘it will happen when you stop trying’ or ‘my second-cousin’s friend’s sister-in-law went sugar free and fell pregnant in a week’… *sigh*

When someone is trusting you enough to share their story, respect them by acknowledging it; not diminishing it, trivialising it or one-upping it.

I have a few well-practiced lines I use including:

  • Jeez that’s tough, it sounds like you’ve really been through the wringer.

  • I appreciate you trusting me enough to share that and I’m sorry things have been so hard. Is there anything I can do support you?

  • I’m not sure what will help you most right now. I can sit and listen if you want to talk, or I can talk and distract you with my hilarity?

  • Rightio. Red, white or tequila? (ok, I’m half joking with this one)

Reflection 4: Make a point of following up

One of the saddest things I experienced was sharing my story with people only for it to never become a topic of conversation ever again. I even had some friends just stop contacting me altogether perhaps because they didn’t know what to say??

The shitty thing doesn’t have to be the topic of convo all the time or in every discussion, but occasionally asking ‘hey how’s the <insert shit bit> going?’ acknowledges that the experience is ongoing and that you care enough to ask. The other person can then choose to engage in a discussion or shut it down.

One of my mates has terminal cancer. It’s sad to talk about. And while I don’t want to make it the singular focus of our catch ups (because their life is so much more than their diagnosis) I always make a point of asking about their treatment and their health. Ignoring it would be disrespectful. And what they are going through is huge and I want them to know they can talk about that with me; even though it’s hard and sad and I don’t always know what to say.

Following up doesn’t have to be this big intense thing either. Even sending a quick message saying ‘hope you’re doing ok today’ or ‘sing out if you need anything this week’ can mean the world to someone floating alone on an Issue Iceberg.

Humans are complicated little beings. We all have our preferences and quirks. There is no exact science to any of this. The only real mistake is not reach out to someone at all. Most people can tell if your approach is genuine, even if it’s clunky and a bit awkward, and respect your effort.

So this R U OK day, take some time to reflect on your approach to supporting others and see if there are small tweaks you can make that might help support those in your life who, like me, might need some silent solidarity rather than a scary conversation.

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