How to: Say the Right Thing

Monday, May 13, 2013

"What do I say?"

I ask myself this every time I hear about someone dealing with a crisis. You?  Maybe your fear of saying the wrong thing prevents you from saying anything at all.  Or perhaps you've said something in the moment that you know didn't help very much or maybe even hurt the person you were trying to comfort.  Check and check.

Having had some experience being the object of people's verbal attempts to help, I've seen a variety of the above and have seen what works well and what's just ok. And yet, I'm still honing my comforting skills because saying the right thing is easier said than done - pun intended.

So to get these skills down, I've pulled a few favorite thoughts to help remind us of what really helps in a time of need:

1. Listen to Understand

Saying the right thing means simply listening.  
  • Sometimes, people assume that a person struggling doesn't want to talk,
    • OR
  • ...if they're honest, people would rather not hear about what's going on - they ask "how are you doing?" and want to hear a "good" or "fine" response.
This is a social norm and often it's not appropriate to go into everything when questions are posed -- or the person may not feel like talking.  However, other times, a person is ready to talk and really wants to unload.  They just need a listener, someone willing to give them a hug and validate their emotions.

I heard a conversation on the Mormon Channel with Sister Virginia Hinckley Pearce, who lost her spouse of 44 years near the time of the interview, say the following about grieving the loss of her husband:

"It's been so surprising for me this whole grieving thing.  I had no clue. I had no clue.  I felt like I was the first person ever doing this.  It's a personal journey. Because you've done it doesn't mean you understand how everyone else is doing it.  Everyone's circumstances are different ... it's profoundly personal."

To me this says that while I might know how the other person is feeling because I've been in similar circumstances or because I can imagine how hard things are for them, I don't know for sure.  Thus, listening becomes key to saying the 'right' thing - often the right thing to happen is just for the person to share how they're dealing with their struggle.
Sister Pearce's interviewer asked: "When we see those around us who are really grieving...what would you tell do to help and serve?"
She responds: "I think being willing to talk about it and knowing that it doesn't go away after a month, that even if it's been 6 months to ask somebody about it is helpful.  It's with them all the time and let them decide, you know, give them an opening and let them decide whether they want to talk about it or they don't.  I think it's taking your clues from them...When you're grieving, one day's ok and the next day you're leveled.

2.  Mourn with those that mourn

When trying to say the right thing, we want to make the problem go away as soon as possible, which can manifest itself with:
  • Advice-giving "You really should try this"
  • One-upsmanship: "If you think that's hard...."
  • Judgement "Really? You feel like that??" (A reaction that's often unspoken but still comes in quite clearly)
Instead, allow the person to feel how they're feeling.  Ask questions to understand rather than to lead the person down a road that will neatly end with the advice, one-up, or judgment you think will fit.

More on this concept and about the diagram below in this article.

The rules of kvetching 
(Illustration by Wes Bausmith / Los Angeles Times)

I so appreciated when people would listen while I talked about Caroline's health scares, when they would ask questions not to pry, but to understand.  This told me that they cared and wanted to really know what was going on in my life.   

What wasn't as helpful were very well-meaning reminders that Caroline would be perfect and whole and saved in the next life.  While this knowledge gives me immense comfort now, in the thick of dealing with her birth and diagnosis, I just felt that I wanted to raise her now and wanted my baby to be healthy.  I needed to grieve that loss.

It's hard to remember to mourn with the person first, but it's often the most helpful thing:
"When a person is allowed to follow the emotions down as far as he needs to go with someone walking beside him emotionally, then he will bring himself back up." Gary Lundberg, LMFT
We can mourn with those that mourn simply by providing comfort and understanding.

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