A simple example of this is kale. Kale is very nutritious, has a lot of health benefits, and I feel good when I eat it. People with hypothyroidism or taking blood thinners need to avoid kale. What’s good for many people is not good for every individual.
It’s common for me to explain to people suggesting I take immune boosting products why I don’t. People think that because they’re successful avoiding or recovering from colds by taking immune boosting products that I should take them too. I’ll nicely explain that I take a disease modifying drug to suppress my immune system because it works too well. While I want to maximize my health, intentionally trying to trigger my immune system to start fighting isn’t good for me. I also explain that eating foods with anti-inflammatory properties does work well for me. We’re all different.
So while it bothers me to have someone tell me they have the answer to my problems, I respond to it the same way as if they’ve just made a suggestion. I’ll honestly let them know whether I’ve already tried it, I’m doing it now, I’ve tried it and it didn’t work for me, or that I’ll look into it. I have a mental list of things I want to try but am not ready to do yet. Some of them like doing yoga and seeing a naturopath took me years before I was ready to try them. When I did, they were a huge benefit to me and I wished I’d tried them sooner. I followed up with the person who’d made a suggestion and thanked her. I let her know I’d finally done it and loved it.
Response Toolbox: I like to think of communication as a toolbox with tools that we use regularly and others that don’t come as naturally. Sometimes we use our standard tool and it works great. Other times it takes three or four tries with different tools before we convey our message. I’ve found that the following methods have worked for me in response to comments that make me uncomfortable, that seem hurtful, or that I’m not up for answering in the moment. You’re likely to have your own go-to methods that fit your personality.
- The blow off: If a comment is too ridiculous or mean and you don’t want to address it at all: pretend you didn’t hear it. Focus on something or someone else and continue the conversation.
- Incredulous silence: If you want them to know it was inappropriate or hurtful, a paused look of shock can work. And move on to something else.
- Honesty: Say their comment is hurtful or too personal for your comfort level and you’d rather not discuss it. And move on to another topic.
- The improvisational approach. Consider the comment as valid, build on it to the ridiculous and humorous conclusion, and laugh it off. It works best if your response really is funny and doesn’t embarrass the person who made the initial comment.
- Find an advocate. Turn to a friendly face in the group and ask what they think about the topic through eye contact or explicit words.
- Connect: Find the kernel of accuracy in what they’re saying, and comment on how that is true before explaining more about your experience.
- Insight: Someone has said something completely foreign to anything you’ve thought before. Say that’s interesting and you’re going to think about it.
- The delayed response: Sometimes a comment sticks in my head long after the conversation is done. I allow myself permission to bring it up later after I’ve thought about it. There’s no time limit to letting someone know that something they said made an impression on you.
- Reschedule: If my energy is low or the event isn’t really conducive for the conversation and I really would like to discuss it another time, I’ll tell them.
- Defer: I’ll tell them there is a lot of information on the web about this topic, and I’m still learning all the time. There are some terrific websites and articles that might be able to explain it much better than I can. If they’re interested in them, I’ll email them later.
- Question: Repeat what you think their question was and ask them if your understanding is correct. If not, they can clarify what they’re asking. Ask them to tell you more about why they’re asking. Sometimes people ask leading questions because they want to tell you something. Let them.
Responding to questions or comments gets easier and more natural with practice. It’s also extremely rewarding to shift a draining and stressful situation to a rejuvenating moment of understanding and connection.
For tips on MS conversations see my post "Talking About MS," and for additional perspective on this topic, see “What Not To Say To Someone With MS...": Connecting With People In Spite Of Odd Comments.