It comes from a newspaper article that’s about a year old. In a Los Angeles Times article, "How not to say the wrong thing," April 7, 2013, co-authors Susan Silk and Barry Goldman address the age-old question, “What do you say to somebody who’s sick?
To understand the advice, you have to conjure up a simple diagram composed of concentric circles with a dot in the middle. The dot is the sick person. The first circle around the sick person is the sick person’s closest relative — a spouse, a parent, a child. The next is other immediate family. Then comes extended family. After that, friends. Then, close co-workers. Then, people in the next office who nod hello to them at the water cooler. Keep drawing circles until you work down to the level of casual acquaintances.
The categories associated with one person may be a bit different than for another. Some people are closer to their best friends than to their family. It’s not so much the labels on the circles that are so brilliant, as what you do with them.
After you’ve plotted your own location on one of the circles, take a look at those who are closer to the patient than you. Then, turn around and observe those who are not so closely connected as you are.
The Comfort In, Kvetch Out rule is this: When you turn towards those who are closer to the patient than you, what you say should be words of comfort. When you turn towards those who are in a less intimate relationship than you, then you can feel free to kvetch — to complain about how bad your friend’s or relative’s illness makes you feel, or how it inconveniences you.
We all need to kvetch from time to time. The art is in deciding who we kvetch to. If our kvetching is directed outwards, that’s fine. If it’s inwards, it can be a burden to those who are already carrying more burdens than we are.
The most important person in the system — the patient — is allowed to kvetch 100% of the time, no questions asked. As for the communications they receive from others, the goal is 100% comfort.
From the article:
“When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you're going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘This must really be hard for you’ or ‘Can I bring you a pot roast?’ Don't say, ‘You should hear what happened to me’ or ‘Here’s what I would do if I were you.’ And don’t say, ‘This is really bringing me down.’
If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It's a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring. You comfort people in the smaller rings. You kvetch to people in the larger rings.”
One important take-away from the article is that advice-giving is a variety of kvetching. You may think you’re helping the person in the smaller ring, but you’re not. Most of the time, advice-giving is more about meeting the needs of the advice-giver than it is about genuinely helping the advice-receiver.
Very likely, what the person in the smaller ring yearns to receive from you, far more than advice, is listening. Listening is one of the most important forms of comfort.
Comfort in. Kvetch out. Not a bad little rule, don’t you think?