Only You Can Turn a Mountain into a Mole Hill

Trivializing negative events is the wrong way to help someone

Posted Oct 09, 2013


Hand reaching desperately over the top of a mountain

Turning a mountain into a mole hill

Bad things happen to everyone all the time.  You slip up on your exercise regime. You have a bad fight with your spouse. You have an unpleasant interaction with a customer, or your boss.  It’s at these moments when it’s so nice to know that you have people around who care about you and support you. 

Or is it?

It turns out that sometimes the people who are genuinely trying to help you deal with a difficult experience can make it worse instead of better. I can think of examples with my kids, with my friends, and of course in my work with teams.  That’s the context in which this story happened, but you can substitute your own story. 

A team of executives was gathered at a full-day planning session.  It was the first session since their leader had decided to change the structure of the department so that she had fewer people reporting directly to her.  This meant a few of the people in the room now no longer reported to the leader, but instead reported to one of her direct reports.  The two-tiered team left the second tier leaders wondering about their place and their value.

We had a great moment when one of the members admitted in front of the whole team that he was having some difficulty dealing with this.  It was a really courageous and valuable thing for him to say because I knew, from talking to them privately, that many were feeling the same way. 

As soon as the words left his mouth, one of his teammates jumped in with “I’ve had similar experiences before. It’s not a big deal.  You’ll get over it.”

It was clear to me and to everyone else that this was meant as support. The only person in the room who didn’t experience it that way was the brave soul who had shared his feelings—feelings that now felt trivialized.  This moment stuck with me and I thought a lot about the friction that had been caused by this misinterpreted show of support.

Having just experienced that, I was excited to see a new piece of research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. In The boundaries of minimization as a technique for improving affect: good for the goose but not for the gander? Grover et al (2013) use an elegant experiment to show that people who are still trying to cope with a negative event are actually hindered by others trying to minimize that event for them. Instead, the individuals who were able to rationalize and minimize the event on their own fared better. Only once people had sufficient time to cope with the event and come to their own conclusions did it help to have the external validation that indeed it wasn’t a big deal.

So what is the helpful supportive teammate (or parent, or spouse, or friend) to do?  The authors cite other research that suggests the best approach is to just be there.  Listen, empathize, and demonstrate that you care without passing judgment on the issue. Try lending personal support without referring to the event by saying something such as “I think you’re a really important part of the team.” Or ask questions to show you’re interested “How are you experiencing this?” Most importantly, just be available if they need your support.

Once the person gives you the sign that they’re starting to cope by saying something like “I guess it isn’t that big a deal,” then you can jump in with support “I think you’re right.  In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a big deal.”     

It would be great if we could wave our magic wands and help friends and teammates minimize negative experiences. Unfortunately, we can’t. We just need to be there.

Only you can make a mole hill of your mountain. Everyone else can only cheer you on.