How to Comfort Someone Who Just Lost a Job
A career coach offers six tips on what to say and do when a friend or loved one becomes unemployed
Carol Ross is a Bell Labs engineer turned career coach, entrepreneur, speaker, and writer. She has created career development programs to help talented midcareer professionals be more successful in a competitive, increasingly digital marketplace. Contact Carol on LinkedIn or by email.
Years ago, I remember walking toward the exit on my last day at work, packed boxes in hand, alongside my manager. A colleague ran into us and asked my manager if she was leaving. I jumped in and said, “No, I’m leaving,” then burst into tears. Not knowing what to say, my co-worker instinctively gave me a big hug.
If your friend, spouse or family member recently became unemployed, it can be hard to know exactly what to say and how to be helpful, beyond offering a hug and expressing sympathy. That’s especially true if the person held the position for many years and hitched his or her identity to the job title.
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Based on my experience as a career coach, I’d suggest you take these six steps to offer comfort and assistance:
1. Acknowledge the loss. That’s what the colleague who gave me a big hug on my last day essentially did.
Anyone who has just become unemployed will appreciate your recognizing the misfortune. Just keep your words simple with something like, “I’m sorry to hear the news.”
When the person is ready to talk — and chances are, you’ll notice the signs — listen without adding your own commentary.
2. Ask what he or she needs to ease the transition. Then offer to help. Maybe you can sort through the packed boxes together. Or you might provide a sympathetic ear, letting your friend or loved one talk about what it means to leave the position and how he or she feels about it.
Assisting someone in making a clear break with the past allows space for what’s next. I know someone who burned her farewell letter in a clay pot after being laid off and was glad that one of her friends was there to witness the sacred moment.
Here are a few questions, based on the work of cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien, that you can ask a newly unemployed person to make meaning of a job that just ended:
- What have you learned from this experience?
- What unfinished business do you have? Is there something you wish you had said or done before leaving the job but you didn't get the chance?
- Do you want to forgive yourself for something or ask for forgiveness from someone?
- Are there relationships you want to bring forward from the job?
- How do you want to mark this important ending?
3. Help the person see the difference between who he or she is and the situation. When people lose jobs, they sometimes feel they no longer have an identity — or, if they do, it's best described as “unemployed worker.”
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Explain that identity goes deeper and broader than a position, a title on a business card or the role of breadwinner. Status, power and a healthy paycheck may be ego-soothing, but they’re not the core of who you are.
Talk about your friend or loved one’s talents and beliefs and how much they're appreciated. Maybe he’s the one who makes sure his entire family spends time together once a week. Or perhaps she’s the one who always stays calm when others get panicky. Maybe he’s the person everyone can count on to head off problems before they arise.
4. Encourage the idea of connecting with friends and family. Losing a job can still feel shameful, especially for men. It’s easy to withdraw and become isolated. But loved ones can keep you grounded, no matter what's happening in your professional life.
For example, my kids still see me as their mother, regardless of whether I get a new client or lose a big contract. My husband can make me laugh with his irreverent remarks, even on my worst days in the office.
Urge your unemployed chum or relative to create a routine that taps into nurturing relationships. It could be setting up a weekly lunch with a buddy or a daily walk with an elderly neighbor, anything that will maintain or expand connections with people he enjoys being around.
5. Allow time and space for the “Neutral Zone.” In his excellent book, Transitions, change consultant William Bridges describes the Neutral Zone as the time after something has ended (e.g., the old job) but before the “new beginning” has emerged (e.g., the next chapter of life/work).
It’s a period when you’re neither here nor there. That’s a pretty good description of the first days and weeks of unemployment.
Although the Neutral Zone can be confusing and stressful, it can also lead to great creativity if the person can roll with the amorphous nature of this limbo land.
Don’t make the mistake of automatically thinking that someone who just lost a job is better off staying busy. He may need a little time to decompress.
Once he’s ready for more activity, offer support by bringing more balance to his life and nurturing his best self. This may take the form of helping him explore a childhood passion or catch up on projects he's queued up for years.
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You could jointly take a class for fun or, better yet, one that will help each of you improve your skills. A course or certificate program at a community college or online might make you both more employable.
Resist the temptation to pepper the person with job leads and interviewing techniques. The Neutral Zone is about regaining one’s footing before starting something new.
6. Be a sounding board. Encourage your pal or loved one to redeploy talents in a new direction that’ll provide more meaning and satisfaction.
Try asking, "If you could have any job in the world, what would it be and why?" The website Encore.org is a great place to research ways of translating prior experiences and skills into new ventures and second acts.
Helping someone who lost a job figure out his or her next steps — and being a patient partner on the journey — just may be one of the best things you’ll ever do.
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