The Art of Dialogue: What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Say

As many of you know, last fall and winter were hard for me because several important people in my life either passed away or were managing health issues that forced them to confront their own mortality. The following summer, I had to manage my own health scare with a visit to the ER. Thankfully, doctors were able to figure out that I needed an appendectomy. Fast forward to this winter, I felt a lump in my breast and found out I have breast cancer. Since then, I have been pretty real with myself and others about what that shock and mourning process have been like.

As I’ve opened myself up to sharing my experience, I’m learning a lot about myself and the world. I’m navigating medical appointments, healthcare bureaucracy, health insurance, financial implications, work life, home life, spiritual attitudes, body image, and self-worth in ways I haven’t before … That’s surprising to me because I already have had quite a colorful, adventurous, and unpredictable life. Just when I thought I couldn’t be shocked anymore, the Universe decided it was time to let me know that I had cancer growing inside of me.


Photo from Flickr

Since I’ve shared more of my story, people have reached out and asked me about my situation.

That’s where things have gotten interesting.

If there’s anything I’m learning from this experience, it is how important the art of dialogue is in daily life and how crucial it is in a crisis.

Dialogue is an art, not a science. There is no algorithm for crafting the perfect conversation.

If you know someone is going through a difficult time, here are tips for facilitating a meaningful conversation.

Approach a person in crisis with an open heart, open mind, and open-ended questions.

First, I say an open heart because that person needs love and kindness above anything else.

Second, I say an open mind because that person might be feeling a variety of emotions, and it might not be easy for you to predict what they want or need. Heck, they might not know what to predict because they’re in crisis.

Third, I say open-ended questions because you don’t want to ask a question that can be leading.

For example, if you ask someone, “How are you doing?” … that question invites a variety of responses from that person. The question does not indicate any assumption on your part. However, if you ask, “Are you doing okay?” or “You’re doing okay, right?” … the question is framed so that the person is expected to answer in a yes/no format. When someone is in a crisis, they might not know what their baseline for being “okay” is anymore. If you ask open-ended questions, you present an opportunity for them to share their experience through a more nuanced lens. (Now based on what types of responses someone provides to your open-ended questions, there might be situations where asking direct yes/no questions is recommended [as mentioned in this blog by NAMI]; however, you still might want to start a conversation by asking open-ended questions).

When I used to volunteer as a hotline counselor for a rape crisis center, I attended an intense series of trainings before my service. Then I continued to develop my counselor skills in ongoing trainings throughout my two years in the program. The art of asking open-ended questions, which made callers feel safe to confide in us, was a consistent priority for the coordinator and volunteers of the hotline. When someone is enduring a crisis, they need any sense of safety they can get. If you want to contribute to that sense of safety, ask open-ended questions. If you approach someone with an open heart and an open mind, then open-ended questions flow more naturally.

Be mindful of your tone when talking to a person in crisis.

What you say matters, but how you say it matters just as much.

How do you know what tone to use with the person in crisis? Ask them. Observe their verbal and nonverbal cues. Make your best judgment. If you truly are approaching them with an open heart, open mind, and open-ended questions, you need to be fully present in the moment. You can’t approach them with a set-in-stone, scripted monologue. If you want to engage in a meaningful dialogue with them, you need to make a conscious effort to listen to understand rather than listen to respond.

This is why dialogue is an art. There are all of these guidelines and advice people can give you, but there is a point where you have to trust your intuition when you tune into another person.

Be intentional and creative with offering support to a person in crisis.

Know your capacity to help someone. How much desire, time, and energy do you have to support them? How flexible are you willing to be? What resources do you want to offer? What are you able to provide?

It’s nice to say, “I’m here to help you with anything you need,” but is that actually true?

If someone is going through a difficult time, you might not be able to directly address their needs, but you can be creative in supporting them through other means. For example, if someone is going through a health crisis, you might not be able to accompany them to medical appointments due to your schedule; however, you might be good at managing finances and navigating health insurance. In that case, you can offer to help them sort through their medical bills and create a plan for tackling them. If you’re not the savviest with finances and health insurance, touching their medical bills would not be a wise call. Still you might like to cook and clean so you can offer to do those chores for them. If you do not like to cook or clean, you can send them a gift card for groceries, restaurants, or cleaning services … You get the picture.

When someone’s in a crisis, they night not have the capacity to think of the ways in which you specifically can support them. It’s nice if you truly can do anything to help them, but offer a few concrete examples to make the decision-making process simpler on their end.

There is no one way to help and talk to someone in a crisis, but hopefully these starting points enable you to have a genuine, supportive connection with someone enduring a challenging situation.

One thought on “The Art of Dialogue: What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Say

  1. Pingback: Redefining What It Means to Be Busy | Unfiltered Snapshot

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