How Can I Help Someone in a Time of Crisis?

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Clinical psychologist Susan Silk offers “The Ring Theory of Kvetching” for talking to someone going through some kind of crisis, whether financial, legal, medical, romantic, or existential. It serves as a kind of panacea for the bumbling fools in all of us who sometimes say the wrong thing to the wrong person, and unfortunately, add to their already enormous stress.

It begins with a circle. Envision the person going through the crisis within that circle. Draw another circle around it and put the next person closest to the trauma or crisis within the new circle. Keep doing this, putting the next closest person in each consecutive circle. Eventually, you have what is called the Kvetching Order.

The first and only rule of “The Ring Theory” is “Comfort in, Dump out.” In other words, people in the Kvetching Order can complain all they want but only to people in larger circles. The person at the center can gripe, moan, lament, and whine to their heart’s content to anyone in the outside circles. People in the outer rings can’t complain to people in inner rings, but can only offer support and comfort. They should not, for example, give advice or talk about themselves. The Kvetching Order is about the people in the inner rings.

Like all end-all cure-all methods, “The Ring Theory” fails to stay relevant in the face of diverse crises and complex relationship dynamics. Silk’s theory is useful when the comforters are at a particular range, not too close nor too far from the center. The formula also works when the trauma is fresh and raw or when the surrounding people actually surround rather than watch warily from a safe distance. But how should one respond if the person in the center of the crisis demands some kind of advice? Or what if the outer people become estranged from the center person, as a defense against feeling awkward, overwhelmed, or unsure of what to say? How does “Comfort in, Dump out” work then?

Consider the comforters. They are also people, and equals in their own relationships with the “inner” people. Yes, it is often counterproductive to whine to those who are likely more stressed about the situation. However, it is a mistake to assume that silently listening and passively comforting are the only ways to help. Honesty builds trust, and trust in a relationship leads to confidence and relief. Of course, sympathy and listening are important, especially when the other person is suffering but I should not be afraid to voice my thoughts, albeit in a supportive, non-confrontational manner.

Silk’s theory is still highly attractive. Its emphasis on listening on the part of people in outer circles is especially appealing, as I know that I personally do not do enough of this at times. However, it is missing crucial pieces that would allow the theory to apply to more situations of crisis and acknowledge the intricacies within different relationships. Thus, rather than treating “The Ring Theory” as a rule, it is better to see it as a rough guideline to expand upon.

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