This month, I’m taking a request and talking about communication and illness. In this case, how you might prepare yourself to communicate your diagnosis with the people in your life and how you might respond if someone chooses to share their diagnosis with you. Once I decided to write about this subject, I started thinking about what perspective to discuss. I first thought about all of the cringe-worthy (and let’s face it, sometimes downright funny) things that I’ve read and heard people say to one another in response to news like, “I have cancer,” and thought I could write about how to avoid those. Then I thought about when I had to tell my loved ones about my own diagnosis and how clumsy I was in my effort to get all of the information out and rush to reassure them (as if that were possible in that moment), and I thought I’d write about how to deliver that kind of news better. But then I thought about how people’s reactions to my news were being filtered through their own experiences. Their responses – whether they were awkward, or dismissive, or sad – were all coming from a place of love, fear, a need to connect with me in that moment, or all of the above. I thought about what their responses told me about them, and about how we handle conversations in times like these can foster a better connection and provide comfort. We just need a little understanding on both sides. So I decided it might be useful to take a look at why people respond the way they do to one another, particularly when the subject matter is so emotionally charged. There is no “best way” or “easy steps” to have these conversations. However, there are things you can do to connect with and better understand one another when you are having them. And in my opinion, it all starts with awareness and perspective on both sides.
Telling people that you have been diagnosed with a serious illness is no easy task. You are working to figure out how you feel about it, and now, you are going to tell people you care about something that will without a doubt scare them, upset them, and dredge up some uncomfortable feelings for them. Then you will have to deal with whatever their response is, and it can all seem so overwhelming. First let me say that how or when to tell others about your diagnosis is a personal choice. There really is no right or wrong way or time. Let me say that again, there really is no right or wrong. And that’s important to wrap your head around because the perfect time and the perfect words don’t exist and you are going through enough without attempting to find them.
How or when to tell others about your diagnosis is a personal choice and there really is no right or wrong way or time.
So the first thing you might want to do before telling anyone, is pause for a moment and take a deep breath. Sit quietly for a few minutes, focus on your breath, think about how you feel about your diagnosis, what your reasons are for telling people in your life, and what you may want to hear back from them or ask of them in terms of support. It’s important to give these things some consideration in advance so that you can better handle people’s reactions and understand where they might be coming from in a healthy way. I remember reactions that ran from one end of the spectrum to the other and because I had given myself a little time and consideration before telling people, I was more able to take a step back and understand where different responses might be coming from, and that helped me understand how I might better communicate what I needed going forward. Now you might say that is a lot of work, and I already have a big enough job. And I would ask you to consider the following – communication and relationships are a two-way street and the people hearing your news have a lot of work of their own that they’re doing. In my case, they had to hear me say I was sick, they had to face the unknown and the fear, and they had to do it while at the same time, feeling the pressure of not wanting to make me feel worse by saying the wrong thing. Whatever they said next, they had good intentions and they were doing the best they could in that moment. Human beings, particularly the human beings you are closest to, don’t wake up deciding that today will be the day that they say something their loved ones will perceive to be dismissive or selfish in the face of challenging news. These comments happen because human beings process information through the lens of their own experiences, they get scared, or they feel desperate to connect in that moment, so they say something that makes them feel involved, or helpful, or they shut you down because they can’t handle it. None of it has to do with how they feel about you (although it can certainly feel like it) and it can be tough to listen to but it also gives you a lot of information about how to speak to them about what you need or want from them during this time. And I think you will find that if you are able to talk about how you feel about their reaction, their intention and the emotion becomes clear. There’s no right or wrong way to share your story, so in your own time, say whatever feels most comfortable to you. It won’t be perfect, and that’s ok. And people’s reactions probably won’t be perfect either, but they are most likely coming from a good place, and if you are so inclined, you can use this as an opportunity to deepen your connection to them by having an honest conversation about what you need and what they can handle.
As with a lot of complex subjects, very human responses may not be the ideal ones. So if you are on the receiving end of news and you aren’t sure of your response, start by taking a breath. There is no rush to respond. Maybe ask yourself what the emotion is behind whatever it is you are going to say next. Is it what you need to say or what you think they need to hear? Recognize that while it may feel like it, this isn’t about you. And then try saying any version of, “I love you, I’m sorry, that sucks, how are you doing with all this, what can I do for you.” That’s all it takes and it’s all you can do. You can’t guarantee that they will be ok. Each person’s situation is different so making comparisons to others you have known isn’t useful, and you don’t want to put the person who is confiding in you in the position of having to now comfort you or tone down what they may be feeling to make you feel better. So say any of the suggested phrases, and wait. Then take your lead from him or her.
Start by believing that everyone is coming from a place of good intention. Have patience with one another’s fears and emotions, understand the difference between what you may need in the moment and what the other person may need, and most importantly, try not to put a lot of undue pressure on yourself because there’s always what comes next.
When I was studying for my master’s degree I read a book called Bridges Not Walls: A Book About Interpersonal Communication by John Stewart. He introduced a concept called “nexting.” The definition might sound obvious to you, but something about reading the words really struck a chord with me. Stewart defined nexting as “doing something helpful next, responding fruitfully to what’s just happened, taking an additional step in the communication process.” In other words, saying something next that may improve upon what you said the first time or move the conversation forward in a different way. I am someone who puts a lot of pressure on myself to say the right thing the first time when the stakes are high. This concept was a wake up call that no one gets it right the first time, but more importantly, no one has to. I think that communicating about illness is just like communicating about any other difficult subject. Start by believing that everyone is coming from a place of good intention. Have patience with one another’s fears and emotions, understand the difference between what you may need in the moment and what the other person may need, and most importantly, try not to put a lot of undue pressure on yourself because there’s always what comes next.
As always, thank you for reading, take care of you, and don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any comments or questions on this or any other wellness-related topic.