Green Balloons

Pain is threaded through our lives, including at work, and, if we’re going to lead, we need to be real about pain. It’s hard when people show us their problems. It makes us uncomfortable. Usually, when we are interrupted by the suffering of others, our primary motivation is to reduce our own discomfort as quickly as possible. We do this by trying to fix, solve, reassure, rationalize, minimize or avoid.

This week, a co-worker’s dad was diagnosed with stage four cancer, another’s loved one received word of a 3-year deployment with the Marines, and a client spoke about the pain of working every day for three months from 4:00 am to 10:00 pm in a broken company. In all cases, I struggled with how to meet the moment as a leader.

In addition to these work encounters, an eight year old boy from our community died this past week. Family, friends, and community members lined the cold and rainy streets with green balloons to honor and celebrate his life. The balloons were a helpful visual to me of how to support others in the midst of their pain.

Let’s look at four ways to respond effectively to other people’s pain:

  1. Be visible. Our busy schedules are a convenient excuse to avoid facing people’s pain. Like the green balloons, we can “show up”, and intentionally anchor ourselves near people to give them strength.
  2. Be inviting. Parker Palmer describes our soul as a wild animal that “seeks safety in the dense underbrush, especially when other people are around. But if we will walk quietly into the woods, sit patiently at the base of a tree, breathe with the air, and fade into our surroundings, the wild creature we seek might put in an appearance.” It’s important that we create a safe place for people to be vulnerable and honest.
  3. Be quiet. My wife and I have had several miscarriages over the years. After our first, the doctor warned us to expect well-intentioned yet unhelpful remarks. And we did – such as, “It must have happened for a reason,” or “My sister had a miscarriage and later delivered several healthy kids,” or “Miscarriages are really common you know.” As professor and author Brené Brown says, most people stifle vulnerability by listening to fix or judge, rather than to simply understand.
  4. Be present. Edwin Friedman, in “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix”, says that, “There is no way out of a chronic condition without being willing to go through a temporarily more acute phase.” The hard work of responding to others’ pain is to endure our lack of ability to take it away.

Would you consider commenting with a tribute or description of someone who has responded well to your pain?



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  • Nicole Cline
    January 14, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    September 2010 in the course of 4 days the following events took place: My Uncle passed away, a friend of mine committed suicide and I was involved because of a letter he left for me to read to his family and our friends, my ex-mother in law (I had been divorced for just a month) passed away and in a weird situation my dogs got into a fight and as I broke it up it resulted being bitten about 10 times on my hand and arm.

    My Mom sat with me as I cried, she bandaged my hand and arm, she made phone calls and arrangements. She brought me a couple meals and invited me to ride with them to the funeral. She didn’t ask “how are you doing” because she knew the answer! She did not give me advice rather she helped me to improve on the situations where possible.

    One contributing reason to my Mom being able to do so much for me in such a painful time is the fact she knows me. I trust her enough to be vulnerable. Even with such an intimate relationship I would not have asked for help, nor would I have been able to articulate what I needed. I think this is where the phase “just be there” must come from.

    Matt this subject is critical to leaders as well as people wanting to be good friends, parents and mentors. It is the essence of many of Dale Carnegie’s human relation principles. I have long thought many of the distractions in our culture get in the way of our ability to experience life with one another. Your thoughts on just being present and quiet are priceless!

    -Nicole Cline

    • normanblogger
      January 15, 2013 at 3:18 am

      Nicole, thank you for your vulnerability and for your reminder to “just be there”.