A week and a half ago I had the opportunity to see Sheryl Sandberg speak, and discuss her most recent book, Option B. She was as graceful and articulate as ever, capturing the audience with her stories about coping with her sudden loss, and inspiring the crowd with encouraging words about being a young, entrepreneurial woman. The entire night left me feeling more inspired and motivated than ever, but one point stuck with me more than the rest.
Sheryl was discussing the time shortly after she lost her husband, and how many people didn’t seem to know how to best interact with her. They might offer their condolences and hurry along, ask “how are things” without any sincere follow up questions, or resort to complete silence. She reflected on how she realized in this moment that while they were all acting how she would typically act in this situation, their tip-toeing around her and the situation just made her feel more alone. While it might feel uncomfortable to bring up her husband, these types of conversations were what helped her to work through her grief, and made her feel as though they truly cared.
This struck me, because I completely understood why most people react in this way. You don’t want to “remind” the person of their hardship, so you talk around the situation or even avoid it completely, rather than referring to it directly.
Sheryl then told a story about a woman that she met while writing her book. This woman had a coworker whose child was in the hospital, and was clearly struggling through this time. She wanted to respect the space of her coworker and coworker’s family, but also felt that she should show her support. So she finally decided to pick up a toy and head to the hospital. She stayed in the lobby and sent her coworker a quick text, letting her know that she was there and was happy to hang around for a while, or to just leave the toy for her to pick up later. She was surprised when her coworker replied immediately, inviting her up to the room. There, she was greeted with a warm hug and to find her coworker in tears. She was the first person to pay a visit to the family.
This story made it so clear to me the impact that a seemingly small gesture can have on a friend or acquaintance, especially in hard times.
In this realization, I made a few goals for myself.
- Show up. When a friend, coworker, acquaintance, or whoever is going through a hard time, show your genuine support. Let them know you are there for them, even if it’s in a small gesture like a supportive note or quick visit.
- Ask “how are you” and mean it. This applies to anyone in the day to day. We are so quick to ask this simple question and brush it off with a “fine!” that we lose opportunity to really discuss how life is going, and offer support to one another.
- Remember and follow up on the little things. I know how special it feels when someone remembers a seemingly small detail I shared with them, and then asks about it later on. It communicates that you truly listen and care about those you interact with.
While I recognize that practicing these things can be uncomfortable, I realized that like many other things, kindness is like a muscle. The more you push yourself and practice it, the easier and more natural it becomes to truly support those around you. And that’s worth it to me.