3 Ways to Make Someone Feel Better When You Can’t Give Them What They Want


It is a little known fact that, many moons ago, I worked for a couple counseling agency.

Clients usually came together as a couple and always with a 45-minute appointment. Counselors were in short supply and our waiting list, long. Payment was made by way of a pay-as-much-as-you-can donation.

So as an alternative, we decided to open a drop-in clinic for people to come in, quite likely alone, for a short counseling session.

We weren’t sure how this would be received. Would we be sitting twiddling our thumbs for two hours or would we be overrun with people desperate to talk to someone?

Adding an element of the unknown was quite a departure for us.

We advertised the dates, stated our hours and held the first two-hour session in a downtown strip mall (we call them a parade of shops in England) in a low-income area.

And waited to see if anyone would turn up.

They did, it was quite successful. Each session was twenty minutes, we had two counselors available and spent the two hours pleasantly busy but not rushed.

But five minutes before the clinic was due to close, a young man came rushing through the door, full of apologies about missing a bus and getting lost.

And my heart sank.

He had the eager, anxious face of a person desperate to unburden himself to someone, anyone, about something that was burning a hole in his brain and his heart simultaneously.

I knew that look very well.

I’d seen it on many people who, broken-hearted, came through our doors. I’d been trained to not let things get to me but I struggled when I saw young men in such emotional pain.

But there was no time to offer him counsel. In the very controlled environment we worked in, there would barely be enough time for him to pour out his story. My counselors were only contracted for a two-hour session.

We had overlooked that our advertising should state the start time of the last counseling session so that it could be be completed before the clinic was up.

I racked my brains to come up with a solution to resolve the anxious face in front of me, but in the end, there was nothing for it.

I thanked him for coming, I apologized, I told him I was unable to give him any time.

His oh-so hopeful face fell through the floor, crushed.

He didn’t break down, but he did wobble, his dreams dashed.

He clenched his jaw to keep himself under control as he told me it was fine, everything was fine.

When clearly it was not.

As I said goodbye to the counselors and locked up the clinic, I felt terrible. I felt our mistake had let this man down.

Two hours later, I was back in our regular office, still upset by what had happened. I mentioned it to a senior therapist who, in three short sentences, lifted my gloom.

By turning him away, I felt that I hadn’t given him anything, that I’d rejected him.

But her words changed my mind and I’ve never forgotten it.

She said:

  • You gave him a smile.
  • You treated him with respect and dignity.
  • You cared.

In a world that is often cruel, especially for people going through a crisis, things like smiles, respect, dignity are in very short supply.


They may be tiny gestures but they are a deposit in the heart bank of those you are with.

And like pennies to the poor, they mean a lot.

So if you can’t give people what they want and let’s face it, we often can’t.

And when you feel you are offering nothing. And you feel awful.

Remember what you can give them.

A smile, a touch, courtesy, respect, some kindness. They all say you care. About them.

It’s not difficult.

It’s easy.

And it’s huge.

Have you ever had to turn someone down? How did you feel? Tell me in the comments!

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Glynis Jolly
February 8, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Hi Alison

As you well know, parents have to face this all the time. As much as we’d like to give our children what they want when they want it, it can’t be done. Moreover, this happens with situations in which something is needed but something else is needed more.

Although I had to say ‘no’ to my son so many times because of being a single parent with a disability, I think I succeeded in leaving his dignity intact and an understanding that my decisions were controlled by my love for him.

Beautiful post.
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Alison Golden February 8, 2012 at 9:17 pm

Hi Glynis! You are so right of course. We have to say no all the time to our kids. Sounds like you were a great mom. “But something else is needed more.” So true.


Linda Esposito
February 13, 2012 at 7:53 pm

Aww—what a sad tale, Alison. The most heart-breaking aspect is the fact that when someone contacts you for counseling, you must strike when the iron is hot. If you can’t accommodate this person, you run the risk of alienating them to the helping professions.

This post reminded me of something that my first clinical supervisor told me after another awful attempt at rookie therapy during my internship: “How often does someone get the chance to sit with a person who listens to them? How meaningful to sit across from someone who’s focused on their emotional pain, with no agenda?”

Kindess doesn’t have to be grand.
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Alison Golden February 13, 2012 at 11:15 pm

Yes, so true, Linda. Kindness is in the simple, small things.


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