real life

How to avoid saying the wrong thing when someone you love is hurting.


It’s called Ring Theory – and it’s easy to follow.





Suffering through a personal crisis, of any kind – whether health related, financial, legal or romantic – can be extremely difficult.

But for many people, navigating through someone else’s personal crisis can be just as hard.

You don’t know what you should say, or what you shouldn’t say. You don’t know if you should bring up the cause of the problem, or avoid the topic at all costs.

Susan Silk writing for the LA Times with Barry Goldman, experienced a situation like this when she had breast cancer. After her surgery, she didn’t feel up to seeing visitors – but one of her colleagues insisted on dropping by anyway.

Because, her colleague said, “This isn’t just about you.”

Susan writes that she wondered, “My breast cancer is not about me? It’s about you?”

And so Susan developed a way of figuring out how deal with other people’s personal crises – not your own.

It’s called the Ring Theory. Susan Silk and Barry Goldman explained it like this:

Draw a circle. This is the centre ring. In it, put the name of the person at the centre of the current trauma…

Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma [like that person’s partner].

Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order.


They then explain the rules: the person in the centre of the circle can say whatever they want. They can bitch, moan, complain and “kvetch” to their heart’s content.

But people in outside rings can only make the situation “about them”, if they are talking to someone in a larger ring. That is, someone further removed from the crisis.

In essence, it’s perfectly acceptable to tell the second cousin twice-removed who lives overseas and has never met your best friend with cancer, that “It’s not all about you.”

But you can’t tell the person is the centre of the rings – who it is about – that “It’s not all about you.”

Even if you’re the best friend. Even if it hurts a lot.

When talking to the people in the centre of the ring – or rings closer to the circle than you – you need to comfort. Listen. Just be there.

The piece in the LA Times continues:

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.

Comfort IN, dump OUT.

A pretty simple rule when it comes down to it.