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I recently heard a story about a woman who was asked by her boss to work over Christmas.  His justification was: “We all want to be at home with our kids, and you don’t have any.”

Most of us have heard such comments, which in some ways are logical and rational.  But what the boss didn’t appreciate is that the woman had only recently had a miscarriage.  For the second time.  And been told she could probably never have children.

Whether this story is true or not, I don’t know.  But that’s not the point.  We can often make simple comments that have a massive unforeseen effect on the person we’re talking to.  We don’t set out to hurt them, but we don’t know where their bruises are.

It’s rather like blundering into their living room, bumping into a coffee table and knocking over a drink.  We never intended to do that, but the mess takes a lot of clearing up and may cause longer-term damage.

Only when we do it with people’s feelings, we can’t see the coffee table, because it’s inside them, in their soul.  I call this invisible furniture.  We don’t even know it’s there, but when we bump into it we cause havoc.  I have done this myself – on one occasion a co-worker went completely crazy at me for no apparent reason.  Only later did I found out that I’d inadvertently touched on a very painful experience in her past which I knew nothing about.

There’s nothing we can do about other people’s invisible furniture.  For the very reason we don’t know it’s there.  But we can assume it’s there.  So I make sure I never ask a married person with no children what plans he or she has for a family.  It’s none of my business and I have no idea how painful that issue is for them.  The same goes for asking a single person “When are you going to get married?”  Just don’t go there!

But we can be aware that when people’s reaction to something we’ve said is extreme, we might have knocked over an invisible mug of coffee.  Be quick to forgive what seems like an overreaction, ready to recognise our offence, and quick to apologise for any offence.

It also helps those of us who have invisible furniture inside us (and who doesn’t?) to be aware of how easily we can be upset, and take preventive action.  If we are aware of our invisible furniture, we could try to move it out of other people’s way by having some counselling.  Or we could, when relationships are sufficiently trusting, let people know that it’s there – “That’s a difficult area for me, can we change the subject?”

And we can minimise the significance of the furniture by thinking through mature ways of responding which don’t punish a person for bumping into it.  For example, for many years when I was asked about my family, I would reply grumpily “I haven’t got one” and then blame the person for their insensitivity.  After much reflection I now reply “I don’t have many relatives but I do have a lot of great friends I think of as family.”  It’s much more positive for me, and for them.

And it makes sure I don’t get any coffee stains on my invisible carpet.