The best way I can describe the emotional tone in the room was “contained and intense,” as I prepared to facilitate a group of caregivers for patients living with bone marrow failure. An hour earlier I had delivered an interactive presentation for patients and caregivers about how to manage their new normal — living with a disease with a prognosis as bad as lung cancer.

iStock_000021649960_MediumNow I was preparing to spend two hours dedicated exclusively to caregivers who were seeking emotional support for the extraordinary difficulties and challenges they had faced and would continue to face with their loved ones.

Caregivers kept filing into the room and we had to keep adding chairs. The room got quite warm. I used no audiovisual aids or handouts and focused on just three questions. Two hours later, what struck me most was how nothing had really changed in these people’s situations and yet somehow they were changed.

I didn’t have to urge anyone to speak. These are rare diseases and this was the first time many of these caregivers had the opportunity to speak to another caregiver. Some had been waiting years for the opportunity.

The questions were simple, but carefully selected:

Do you feel it is best to hide the scary facts from the patient or do you think it is best to tell the patient everything?

What is the one thing that is most difficult for you right now?

How are you taking care of yourself?

When we’re fully present with another human being, we provide them a container that helps them hold their experience without being shattered by it.

There were other questions that would have been just as effective in focusing on caregivers’ emotional state and coping issues. More important than the questions and how they were phrased was being fully “present” with the people in the room. I think of this skill as the ability to simply “be with” someone as they wrestle with a difficult decision, situation or emotion, and after all these years, I continue to be in awe of how incredibly helpful it is to another person when we are able to do this for them.

How can you infuse emotional intelligence into your interactions with caregivers? Here are three ways you can cultivate your ability to “be there” for someone today:

1. Make A Connection.  Make It Easy.  
Making eye contact is a significant emotional event, so use it as a way to instantly connect with another person. One of the easiest ways to make an appropriate level of connection is to simply notice the color of the person’s eyes. Try it and notice how it allows you to connect without being too “personal.”

2. It’s Better To Receive Than To Give (At Least At First).
Seek out someone that is good at establishing an appropriate degree of emotional connection with you — Someone that pays attention to what you’re saying with a non-judgmental awareness that is friendly, curious and compassionate. Receiving this kind of connection from another — seeing it modeled and feeling the effect it has on you — is often the first step in getting good at giving it to others.

3. Cultivate The Art Of Being Fully “Present.” Start With Yourself.
If you want to connect better with caregivers and more effectively support them as they encounter life-changing diagnoses involving life-long treatment and uncertain outcomes, the second step is (paradoxically) cultivating the art of being fully present with yourself.

The most powerful way I learned to do this is from a meditation practice. Here’s how I got my Type-A, OCD self to sit still long enough to begin: Several years ago I started what I referred to as my “mocha meditations.”  Every morning I wrapped myself in a blanket and sat on my couch for ten to twenty minutes in silence as I sipped a cup of coffee and watched my breath go in and out. On days that didn’t work out, I did yoga vinyasa (a form of “moving meditation”). Other alternatives to consider are tai chi, therapeutic journaling or voice dialogue facilitation. Please contact me if you want more information about any of these alternatives. The idea is to just start somewhere and find what works for you.

We may not be able to fix or change things for caregivers, but when we’re fully present we somehow help them deal with things that can’t be fixed or changed. When we’re fully present with another human being, we provide them a container that helps them hold their experience without being shattered by it.