When would this be over?
I leaned against the back of the chair and glanced up at the dinner speaker sitting up on the stage and expounding on all things related to Gen Z. I glanced around at the fifty-plus dinner participants who were listening rapturously, because most had children who belonged to Gen Z. They wanted an instant solution from this expert about how they could communicate more effectively with their children. I suppressed a deep sigh. When would these people learn that children don’t listen to parents, no matter what generation?
But no, the expert declared, Gen Z was different, because they were digital natives and knew how to change society, unlike past generations. As the expert droned on and on about how Gen Z would be THE generation that would change the world for better, I squirmed in my chair and took out my phone – thankfully, I sat at a table positioned in the back of the ballroom near the fire exit. I pulled out my phone and tucked the top part of it under the thick tablecloth, and started to swipe.
My swipe-happy finger paused when my eyes strayed upon the following LinkedIn message from someone that I knew in passing as a work colleague:
Jenny I realize that I don’t know you that well. But I need some legal help so I’m throwing a lifeline in hopes that you’ll somehow be checking LinkedIn. Do you have just a minute? I’m not in trouble or anything… not asking for you to help me other than maybe give me an idea of who to call.
It was such an odd message from someone I knew as eternally cheerful, inquisitive, and respectful – I had enjoyed our one-off conversations ranging from neuroscience to faith to random trivia. I hunched over and immediately texted back my cell phone number.
Immediately, my screen shimmered with an incoming call, and I swiped “accept.” I pushed my chair back and rushed to the fire exit, and entered the restrooms to take the call.
For over twenty years, he had been taking care of his spouse’s mental health needs, and there were times that she had to be hospitalized. However, this time, he and the hospital staff had not been communicating effectively. He had been kicked out of the hospital premises for interfering too much, and he was worried that his spouse would not be receiving the medication that she needed to survive. He was at his wit’s end, and he did not know who else to contact. He thought of me and on a whim, reached out on LinkedIn, hoping against hope that I would respond that evening.
I ran through the options of people in my head, and immediately started to call around, although finding anyone at 9pm in Wichita, KS is somewhat tricky. Running into dead ends, I called him back and outlined what I planned to do first thing in the morning. I tried to calm him down, recommended that he get some sleep (he had not slept for 48 hours due to his spouse’s issues), and promised that I would connect him with resources in the morning.
The next morning, I contacted a colleague who had been mapping out mental health resources in the Wichita area, and also served on a mental health association board. She immediately reached out to this person, and together, they temporarily resolved the services issues being experienced by his spouse at the hospital. Through the mental health network that my colleague had built, she was able to connect him with the people – healthcare providers and attorneys – who could help him maneuver within the unnecessarily complicated system.
When would this be over for him?
Thanks to people who have helped him maneuver a complicated system more effectively, this person understands how to leverage the legal and healthcare systems more effectively to mitigate his spouse’s mental health issues. But having battled his spouse’s mental health issues for over twenty years, he knows that, despite the plethora of mental health experts, no one has a solution or a cocktail of drugs that will make her mental health issues disappear forever.
Instead, together, they must focus on mitigation and making trade-offs – this process is and continues to be a marathon, not a sprint.
We seek experts, expecting them to provide quick and easy solutions to our most pressing problems – like the Gen Z expert who was the dinner speaker when I received the SOS from my colleague. But when it comes to trying to solve questions that have no answers, there are no experts.
So each time you think you are an expert, or an expert has the answers, pause and think about the following:
Listen. Listen for what’s unspoken – when you are dealing with someone desperate, articulation will not be high on their list.
And listen for the covertly desperate – for example, if someone seems to have a too perfectly content facade, breathe deeply, close your mouth, and open your ears. Piece together fragments of conversations that you have shared, and if something does not feel right, make a mental note.
Microsoft Office 365 My Analytics provides many data points about how productive you are at work and how effectively you step away from your work outside of working hours, which are labeled as “quiet” days. But that data does not capture what happens behind closed doors; it does not mean that personal lives are “quiet.”
Keep in mind that all our people have personal lives, and we don’t know what happens there that could impact them everywhere else in their lives, including at the workplace.
Demonstrate grace – give people the benefit of the doubt, and try to understand their intention, rather than just the immediate impression.
We are not that dissimilar to stars in the sky – separate but able to connect and become new structures of support. You are alone yet not alone – treasure the people around you.
Know when to support and to help, but also when to step back. We own our choices and their consequences.
Because living will not end anytime soon.