A man was having a heated argument with his wife in a hospital. He was telling her there was no need for her to get anxious and come to the hospital. He would’ve let her know if there was anything to be worried about. The woman on her part, kept saying, “How can I not get anxious? I have been trying to call you so many times and there was no response”. The man continued to yell at her for worrying and eventually the woman began to cry. That’s when the man mellowed down and said, “Okay, I am sorry! I should’ve called you back. I understand your concern.” He apologized for a few minutes and then, the woman calmed down and both felt better.

What happened in the first few minutes?

The man was trying to validate what his wife went through (anxiety). From his point of view, it did not make sense. Hence, he could not understand and was getting irritated. After a while, the man paused and tried to understand what his wife may have gone through, without trying to validate or justify. He moved from thinking in his shoes to the other person’s shoes. That made the difference.

Sometimes, there can be situations where we may not know what to say. Below are a few things that could be considered during those times:

It is their experience, not ours
The moment we validate someone’s experience or emotions, it is tagged based on our subjective interpretation and filters. Hence, what follows is based on thinking in our shoes. Rather, if we allow a person to experience what they are experiencing without any judgment, rationalization or validation, it is easy for them to express and move on. What we resist usually persists. The more we try to tell someone that what they are experiencing is not valid or valued, the more they may want to hold on to their thoughts or emotions. It is those times when we can think in others’ shoes, we have a larger influence.

Allow them to express
Often times, for lack of better things, we may want to say, “Why do you worry”, “Don’t cry”, “You shouldn’t cry”, “You shouldn’t feel bad” etc. when they are neck deep in sorrow. It may be better to allow them to experience and express their emotion than asking them not to feel a certain way. It is better expressed than repressed. Sometimes even saying “Don’t worry” could fall out of place if there’s every reason for the person to feel obviously worried. It’s good to weigh our words against the situation before speaking them out. Allowing natural human emotions to flow is healthy. Intervening may be required only if things get out of hand.

Acknowledge and Appreciate
Instead of the above, saying things like, “I understand” or listening attentively can be very comforting as they acknowledge what the person is going through. Acknowledging doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing. To acknowledge, is to understand. Agreeing is approving and validating that what they think and feel is right. It may or may not be necessary depending on the situation. There’s often something that can be appreciated too. For example: Appreciate the strength with which they are going through. It adds to their confidence.

Save the unsolicited advice
Troubled times are usually when advices may not land very well too – no matter how good. It may be best to save our ideas and advice for later and just stand by them for now.

No “I told you this would happen”
Someone is already feeling bad for a thing that went wrong. This would be the wrong time to say, “See, I told you”,
“I warned you” and the like. This only aggravates the guilt or bad feelings. What is important when things go wrong is for them to feel that someone is standing by them without any judgments or criticisms and will be there for them. People learn faster and better in unconditional positive environments.

One size does not fit all
Different people have different coping styles and reactions to similar situations. An open space from our end will help us understand what is their preference and how could we be there for them. If we are unsure of what may be an appropriate thing to say or do, standing in silence and expressing solidarity may be very supportive.

Times where Silence is truly golden
Not everyone may want to talk right away. Sometimes, it is best to give them time than force them to talk. What is important for them to know is that you are there for them, anytime. Whenever they feel like talking you are right there and that you truly wish whatever they are going through, gets better soon. Works wonders. Works better than being inquisitive in that moment.

The one time when silence may not be beneficial is when a person is in a self-critical mode. When a person is being self-critical, silence may come across as an acknowledgement or agreement to what they are saying and that is certainly not what we want to do. It may just make them feel worse. Here’s where it may be useful to tell them good things about themselves or things that assume positive intent on their behalf behind their actions.

My problem is bigger than yours
No problem is big or small. Even similar problems are unique to different people because people are unique. Telling someone that we have experienced or heard of bigger problems than theirs may not be most respectful. We are not there to compete on who has the biggest problem of all.

Sharing stories from the past that had bad endings may not be helpful either. Rays of hope are most welcome. Experiences can be shared in a neutral way (not as advise or suggestion) if we think they can boost the overall morale.

One of the most beautiful aspects of being human is about wanting to be there for someone when they need support. That is the propelling force behind wanting us to get it right – because it means something to you and someone you love too. Good luck and God bless!

5 Replies to “When you don’t know what to say…”

  1. […] What: “When you don’t know what to say…” […]

    1. Thank you so much 🙂

  2. Dr.Kalyan 9 years ago

    what a fabulous article

    1. Thank you Dr.Kalyan!

  3. […] For more tips on what to say and what not to say in these circumstances – please refer to an earlier blog – https://narmadarao.wordpress.com/2014/12/29/when-you-dont-know-what-to-say-2/ […]

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