Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

What Not to Say & When Not to Say It

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When there’s a crisis, there are a set of rules that could fill a small library – a small, complex library with plenty of hidden shelves for the rules whose existence you have no idea about, until they are broken.

There’s a brilliant theory that deals with the unwritten rules around responding to people in a crisis. It’s one of those life tools that makes you grateful you were in the right place when it came your way – which I was, and which you now are now, if you want to be …

The theory is the brainchild of Susan Silk and it came about as a result of the way people responded during her own crisis. After surgery for breast cancer a colleague wanted to visit her. When Susan mentioned she wasn’t up to visitors, her colleague’s response was ‘This isn’t just about you.’

Perhaps right now, as I am, you are taking a sharp breath in. True, this response is ‘out there’ but there are plenty of subtle and not so subtle versions of the very same thing – people drawing on those more affected by a crisis than they are for support or a sound-off. One that happens far too much is the parent who leans on the child after a divorce or separation.

As Susan Silk explains, her theory – the Ring Theory – ‘… works for all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential.’  Here’s how it works.

  1. First, draw a circle. This is the centre ring and in this circle is the person at the centre of the crisis (let’s call them the ‘centre-person‘). They can say anything they want – cry, complain, fall apart, lean on or break down – to whoever they want.
  2. Next, draw a circle around the centre ring, and another circle around that one and so on until you have a number of concentric circles, like a target. 
  3. Everyone in the centre-person’s life is then placed in one of the circles around the centre circle, depending on how close they are to the crisis. Those who are are closer to the centre-person will be in one of the circles closer to the centre ring. Less intimate relationships will be in the outside bigger circles. So in the next circle to the centre-person are the next most affected people and so on. 

There are no boundaries on what anyone can say. Just who they can say it to.

To use the separation example, the children have no control over the decision or the outcome and they will have trouble understanding their broken hearts and the changes happening at light speed around them. They are affected the most, so they are placed in the centre circle. In the circle around them are the parents. Next, maybe grandparents, or children who live with another parent. Next, maybe friends or siblings of the parents. You get the idea. 

In this instance – and remember it’s just an example – the parents must never look to the children for support, but they can look to the grandparents, siblings or friends – anyone in a circle that’s bigger than their own. The grandparents in this example must never look to the centre children or the parents for support but they can go to other siblings or friends. 

Everyone in the circles can say what they want to, whenever they want to, but only to people in the larger circles – never to people in the circles closer to the centre-person than theirs.

When speaking to anyone in a smaller circle, the goal is to comfort, love and support – whatever is needed. It’s important not to look to them for support though. They’re busy supporting themselves and those in the smaller circles to them. Don’t say anything even in the same land mass as ‘I’m really struggling with this,’ or ‘I’m just crying myself to sleep over this,’ or ‘This is really upsetting to me.’ Just. No. 

Also best not to give advice unless it’s asked for. Though the advice may be well-intended, people in a crisis don’t need to hear what they ‘should’ do. They’ll be having enough trouble doing very much at all until the crisis starts to clear. Until that point, let them know it’s fine if all they do for the time being is breathe.

If, when supporting someone through a crisis, you want to cry, scream, talk about the unfairness of it all or the awful things it’s dragged up for you, that’s absolutely fine and completely normal and healthy. Just do it to someone in a larger circle than yours.

The idea is a simple one – ‘Comfort in, Dump out’.

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