Basic training: Having better supportive conversations with military family members

Staff Sgt. Thomas Agee, 554th RED HORSE Squadron structural journeyman, calls home from the mobility deployment processing center here Oct. 5 before departing to Indonesia to assist in providing aid to victims after a 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck West Sumatra province on Sept. 30.

“What should I say to make them feel better?” As a communication professor who studies how people support each other, I get this question all the time. Sometimes that question comes from friends, neighbors, and co-workers of military spouses or other family members who are holding down the home front while their Service Member is deployed. This isn’t the right question, though. There’s no magic phrase to alleviate the stress of a deployment. To make things harder, what works for one person might not work for another.

The better question to ask is, “How can I be present for someone with a deployed family member?” The answer is to set aside your assumptions and to create space for a supportive conversation to flourish. The stress of deployment affects different family members in different ways. One thing we do know is that people don’t enjoy it when someone assumes they know their experience. Even if you’ve been through a deployment, not every deployment experience is the same. So, instead of assuming a similar experience and offering advice, think about supporting someone as if you’re going on a fact-finding mission. Instead of leading with an assumption of shared experiences, consider asking these questions instead:

  • What has this been like for you, specifically?
  • What about this is different from what you were told to expect?
Can you imagine how refreshing it would be to have someone give you the floor to talk about your individual experience with something as potentially stressful as deployment? That would be much better than being force-fed advice from someone who might not understand your unique situation. If you ask such questions, the things the person says back to you should inform your next steps.

Giving advice might be the right move, but I suggest you do 2 things before that: First, ask if they want advice or if they just need someone to vent to. Second, if you do give advice, remind them that this is based on your experience and to take it with a grain of salt. Remember, most of the time people want to be heard instead of being fixed—especially when there’s no “fixing” something such as deployment, which is in some ways beyond their control.

Deployments often last for months, and good supporters might be expected to check in throughout the deployment. It might seem right to send the occasional text of, “How’s it going?” Instead, I suggest one slight tweak: Add the word “today” at the end of that question. Here’s why.

Think about the last time you were going through a tough time, and someone asked, “How’s it going?” Have you ever replied by shrugging them off with a “fine” or “all good” even when things weren’t “all good”? Such a broad question as “How’s it going?” can stifle an honest response because the person doesn’t want to unload all the emotions and problems they have built up over the months of deployment. Where does one begin when asked “How’s it going?” when your loved one has been away for several months?

But what if someone asks, “How’s it going today?” Or even, “How’s this week been compared to last?” These questions beg for more detail and demonstrate more interest in hearing an honest answer. You’ll find that people might respond that today is good, but it’s been a rough week. They might even volunteer the reasons they feel this way without being probed further. It also gives permission for someone to admit that there are peaks and valleys to the deployment experience. The research on military deployments shows this often to be the case. Some days will undoubtedly be terrible, but others might involve feelings of pride in establishing new routines or renewed connections with loved ones. Asking about today gives people a chance to give detail and compare how the present might be better or worse than the past—including why that is. It gives them a chance to share their unique, ongoing experience instead of being on the receiving end of advice that might not be wanted or useful.

Ironically, I conclude with some advice for how to be a better supporter. Remember, this is based on research, but it also comes from my own personal experiences—so take this advice with a grain of salt:

  • Don’t assume you can (or should) say “just the right thing” to fix the problem.
  • Ask questions that give others a chance to share their own unique experiences.
  • Realize that supporting someone over many months means both commiserating during the lows and appreciating the moments when things go well.

Disclosure: The opinions and assertions expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of USU or DoD. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or policies of The Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine, Inc. Mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. The author has no financial interests or relationships to disclose.