I quite enjoy the comic strip "Pearls Before Swine." It's a wonderful spotlight on relationships. A recent strip (find it at http://www.gocomics.com/pearlsbeforeswine/2011/12/11) got in a whack at the brainless things people do when confronted with tales of great troubles and woes.
In the strip, Pig has been going from house to house, entertaining his neighbors with his skills as a "tap-dancing pig." He's been getting compliments on his newest gig and asks Zebra to participate in a poll of whether or not Zebra likes the dancing.
Zebra's just had some tragic news about the deaths of a number of his family members and shares them with Pig. Pig's best response is to offer a cheerful tap dance. Zebra is not amused. Pig fills in the poll with "not a fan."
Now how often does it happen in reality that when someone is depressed or in grief that others around try to simply offer the emotional equivalent of a small bandaid for a long, bleeding gash? That is, they say something to cheer the other up.
And, a comment like "Oh. I'm very sorry for your loss," followed by a quick escape is not much better than "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, did you enjoy the play?"
If you work with someone and you seen them frequently, you need to be able to respond empathetically when they confide their troubles. Even if you actually don't care very much for that person. It's just part of good relationships in the workplace.
It's Not About You
No matter why you visited the co-worker, it takes second place to tragic news. Not to simple complaining, of course. But a death in the family, getting fired, getting demoted or something of that magnitude.
Put aside whatever you came to the co-worker for. It's not about you or your questions or requests or interests. It's time to focus on that person.
Although you may have come with something urgent to you, the co-worker will not be able to focus on your interest. Your organization may be bloodless enough to require him to be at work no matter what, but it's unreasonable to expect a high level of work performance from him.
When you are finished talking to him, find another way to get done what you went to him to get. There are few instances in which another person can't take on someone's work, answer your questions or run your errand.
Just keep remembering: when another person is going through a serious crisis, it's all about him. Not about you.
Don't Try To Fix It, You Don't Have The Tools
Just listen. With an intention to be empathetic.
Unless you're a professional counselor with experience in grief, loss, crisis or trauma, it is unlikely you can help other than by listening.
You may think you can be of practical help. Maybe you can. But that isn't why people share their troubles and pain. They want someone to listen and appear to care. If you offer help or practical solutions, you may actually offend someone. Offering help or solutions suddenly makes it about you instead of them. Someone in emotional crisis is looking for empathy first. They hope to get it even from workplace relationships.
There are many good books on listening with empathy. Almost any of Thomas Gordon's books will help you learn how to use this powerful communication tool. Be prepared for co-workers' crises. They are very common.
Listening Is Good Enough, But Ask If There's Anything Else
After your co-worker seems to be calmer and satisfied that he's been heard, and you believe you've give him a decent amount of attention, prepare to leave. Tell him to call you if he needs to talk any more.
Let him know that you'll take care of what you originally came to him for. He's not to worry about it.
Tell him that you're not sure if there's anything else you can do for him, but to ask if he thinks of something. Now is the time to mention if you have any special knowledge or skills that might help. For example, I know a couple who sent their daughter to babysit younger children while parents who lost an older child made funeral arrangements.
I'll say it again. Be prepared. You'll find that people you work with will have a number of critical experiences. Know how to handle them. Avoid being like Pig. A cheery tap-dance isn't a solution to serious emotional pain.
Good workplace relationships rely on good responses to co-workers' needs.