Brain-Injured Coworker

In Mental Health on December 25, 2009 at 10:38 pm

General self-care, ie, good food, excercise and relaxation breed patience.

Dear Yenta,

There is a woman I work with that has a brain injury that affects her emotions. And even though she tries to be friendly and nice, she can be very immature and irritating. How can I, under no uncertain terms, tell her I am not interested in being her friend but still not crush her?

-Avoiding Disaster

Dear AD,

When we encounter challenging people in our lives it is often a call to develop new skills. Patience is a virtue, so they say, one that is hard to come by, particularly when people annoy us. You need to cultivate patience, grow it like a plant, feed yourself so you don’t lash out unexpectedly at this woman. Friendship or no friendship, she will be at your job day in and day out.

Cultivating patience basically involves calming your own system. This could come as cooking for yourself, buying yourself relaxing things like soaps and candles, eating healthy, lessening caffeine, sugar and alcohol intake. Maybe add more excercise, yoga or meditation.

Tranquility is contagious just like frustration. If this woman is getting worked up, she may be picking up on your irritability. If I ran your office I would ask everyone to take extra care to calm their bodies and minds so this woman felt safe to do the same.

Oddly enough, a rabbi just walked by me while I was writing. I asked him your question and he answered, “I don’t think she should abandon her, this is her time of need.”

Perhaps instead of working so hard to avoid this woman, you should work on finding ways to face her and communicate with her more effectively. You might need to simply find solid ways of setting boundaries so she can actually honor them and this might require learning to speak her language.

People frequently talk down to those with brain injuries and mental illness, addressing them as if they were children. Often times people solicit less energy from others when they really feel seen and heard, with equality and respect. Treat a woman, brain injured or not, as you would like to be treated and you might be surprised by how her behavior towards you might change. offers tips for communicating with the mentally ill. They specifically address the need to focus on both verbal and non-verbal communication. See below for more details and/or click here.

Watch your body, your words, your general demeanor. Work on clarity, intention, patience and kindness. In the end, whether you want to sever a relationship, or fine-tune it, these basic approaches should help you deliver your message without “crushing her,” so to speak.

More on communication from

Guidelines for non-verbal communication:

1. Stand close to your relative, but don’t crowd his/her personal space.
2. Convey interest, concern and alertness through your body posture and facial expression.
3, Maintain eye contact with your relative.
4. Speak calmly and clearly.

Expressing positive feelings:

1. Look at the person.
2. Say exactly what the person did that pleased you.
3. Tell the person how their behavior made you feel. (Bad ex.: “You are nice to have around the house.” Good ex.: “I like it when you do a nice job cleaning the kitchen”).

Making a positive request:

1. Look at the person.
2. Say exactly what you would like the person to do.
3. Tell how it would make you feel.
4. Use phrases like “I would like you to….” or “I would really appreciate it if you would…..”

Expressing negative feelings:

Look at the person. Say exactly what the person did that upset you.
Tell the person how it made you feel.
Suggest how the person might prevent this from happening in the future. (Bad ex. “You are a frightening person.” Good ex. “I get very nervous when you pace around the room.”)

Active listening:

1. Look at the speaker.
2. Attend to what is said.
3. Nod head, say, “Uh-huh”.
4. Ask clarifying questions.
5. Check out what you heard.

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