Ask Good Questions: Responding to exciting news that gets you feeling uneasy

Have you ever had an acquaintance come up to you with some big news, and you didn’t know how to respond? You could tell that they were excited, but you didn’t know what to say.

Like if your coworker, who constantly fights with her boyfriend, says that they are moving in together. She’s thrilled, but you don’t think it’s a good idea. Yet how can you tell her that?

Or a classmate with shaky finances says that he is going to Las Vegas for his birthday. He’s super pumped about the trip, and you don’t want to get him down by telling him not to go.

In these situations, you may not feel inclined to rejoice, but you don’t feel comfortable voicing your concerns. What do you say?

I find that when people share exciting news, they’re not looking for the other person to also get excited. They are looking for someone to validate their feelings. “Here’s what happened to me, and here’s how it is affecting my feelings.” Instead of faking excitement, you can say, “Wow! That sounds like big news. Tell me more.” You shift the conversation from shared emotion to interest in the other person.

This approach is especially useful for thorny situations in which folks hold deeply rooted beliefs (hoo boy). For example, if you believe that marriage should be defined as between one man and one woman, and your coworker says that she is marrying her partner, you may not feel ready to celebrate. But you can ask questions and express a genuine interest in your colleague. Or if you are an atheist and your classmate shares that he is baptizing his infant son, you may inwardly think that your classmate is telling lies to his kid, but you feel uncomfortable saying so. You can ask questions and engage.

Now, some may bristle at these examples. Some may say “You garbage person! You should feel happy for other people, regardless of what you believe!” But I maintain that you can’t tell people what to feel. Some people will respond to news with joy. Others will respond with sadness, or anger, or mixed emotion. Feelings are our knee jerk responses to events, based on our beliefs. Now, you can challenge the beliefs that undergird the feelings, but it doesn’t do much good to tell people what to feel. They’ll just get defensive about it.

Some may say, “I’m just going to speak my mind. If I think it’s wrong, then I’m going to tell them!” And if it’s your friend, maybe they’ll listen. But if you’re talking to acquaintances, how can you expect your words to change their minds? You don’t have that level of relationship yet. People will only open their hearts to you if they trust you. If you speak your mind without winning their hearts, you risk losing the relationship.

Some may say, “I don’t want to be friends with people who won’t be honest with me about how they really feel.” That’s fine, you can choose your friends. But that’s why in my examples, I referred to coworkers and classmates. You don’t need to be super buddies with everyone. But you need to get along with your team. After all, you’ll need everyone’s help to write that TPS report.

TL;DR – When coworkers, classmates, and casual acquaintances share news that excites them, but has you feeling uneasy, ask them to tell you more. You don’t need to fake excitement or walk away awkwardly. Engage, and show that you are interested in what they have to say. The goal isn’t for the other person to say “You were just as excited as I was about what happened.” The goal is to have them say “Thank you for listening.”

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