The Today show yesterday ran a segment on a subject dear to my heart. Entitled “What Do You Say?”, the piece focused on selecting the right words to say to someone experiencing a crisis.
There is no question that it can be awkward to be on the receiving end of bad news from a friend or colleague who has just lost a job or a loved one or is facing a frightening diagnosis or a failing marriage, and then be expected to respond with the right words.
We all mean well, but sometimes we misstep. Many people are natural-born fixers, so they want to say something to fix the problem, make it go away or distract the person from his or her troubles. Others are minimizers; they want to show the person that the problem is minor in the overall scheme of things. Some people find a way to make it about them. We all want to be helpful, but we all don’t have the guidance we need from the experts. Therefore, I applaud Today for getting the subject out in the open.
I began thinking about this 20 years ago, after experiencing a series of personal losses. At my lowest point, one of my closest friends, meaning well, responded, “I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.” That was the last thing I wanted to hear, and yet, she meant to offer comfort. I’m sure I’ve made similar blunders.
That’s when I began paying attention to how we console the ailing. Six years ago, I received training to become a hospice and bereavement caregiver, which turned out to be the most valuable education I’ve received.
If I had to boil all I’ve learned over the years into a few tips, I’d offer the following.
DO say “I’m sorry,” but try to avoid too many other sentences that begin with “I.” In other words, don’t tell the person how hard the news is on you. It might be better to say, “This must be very difficult for you.” It’s about the person in crisis, not about us.
DO offer help, if you are sincere, but be willing to back up your offer with action. If possible, be specific. Perhaps offer to take one’s children for an afternoon, fold a load of laundry or pick up a few things at the store.
DO offer a sympathetic ear, and make yourself available for a visit. Offer to take the person out, but make sure it’s not for the purpose of getting his or her mind off the problem necessarily. A distraction might be welcome, but so might the opportunity to talk. Let the person set the agenda and don’t invite other people who might inhibit candid conversation about the crisis at hand. It can be painful for the person to sit there and pretend nothing’s wrong.
DO listen. Let the person talk and don’t feel that you must always respond with words. Sometimes silence is the best gift.
DON’T say, “I know how you feel.” You might have been in a similar situation, but each person’s circumstances and feelings are different–and deeply personal.
DON’T respond immediately with stories of others you know who have gone through difficulties. If you do, try to avoid sharing outcomes.
DON’T trivialize the person’s troubles. To him or her, it’s everything right now. Don’t point out how things could be worse or that it must be happening for a reason or is part of a plan.
DON’T say any anything that begins with “At least…”
Anyway, these are just a few tips I’ve gathered. Perhaps you have more?