Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: My husband’s sister “Beth” fancies herself a psychic of sorts who can communicate with the beyond. A few months ago, we were eating dinner when she began talking about a spirit with me. I honestly had no idea who she was talking about and told her that, because I had no deceased relatives or friends who fit her description. Beth became very upset, claiming that she was overwhelmed with what the spirit was trying to tell her. She was so upset she ran from the room to lie in a dark room and compose herself.

My in-laws asked me to be gentler with her, since this “gift” is a major part of her identity.

I see two paths. I can either lie to Beth and feed her belief that she has this “gift.” Or I can tell her she is dead wrong. Which makes me feel like I’m kicking a puppy. My husband and I would ideally like to handle Beth’s “gift” in a thoughtful way, but it’s hard to see what middle ground we have, especially when she puts you on the spot. How can I thoughtfully respond to Beth in a way that preserves her self-worth but also doesn’t give in to a delusion?

I See Dead People

(Nick Galifianakis/for The Washington Post)

I See Dead People: Please, make my month and tell me she looks like Sybill Trelawney in the Harry Potter movies.

It’s not your place to tell Beth she’s “dead wrong” or push her to conform to your idea of non-delusional; skepticism is a lot less arrogant than certainty.

It’s also not your place to indulge Beth as though you believe what she’s saying when you secretly think it’s a crock.

If you can summon a non-mocking “Why not?” attitude and go along with the possibilities, then, great, that’s ideal. Otherwise I suggest: “Wow, interesting — no one comes to mind but I’ll try to figure it out.”

Even as I type this, I have the phrase “No one’s doing Beth any favors here” clanging in my head, but that’s why I advise remaining kindly neutral. Take no sides and let her sort it out. That includes not biting when the in-laws try to draw you into anything deeper than a kind, non-committal response to Beth’s gift or “gift.”

And think of it this way: Wherever you believe the stories come from, Beth is a storyteller, and surely we’ve all been to dinners that could have used one of those. (If my kids were reading this, they’d say, “Thanks, but don’t call me Shirley.”)

Re: Beth: I think I would stop at “Wow, interesting,” unless I really were going to try to figure it out. If Beth continues, depending on what she says, there’s also “Hmm, doesn’t ring a bell,” and “I’ll give that some thought” (if Beth says that the spirit is giving advice or a warning), and just “Hmm.” There really is a lot of middle ground; most of it consists of neutral responses and looking for opportunities to change the subject.


Anonymous: Fair enough, but you wouldn’t try to figure it out, not even a little bit?

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