Why is it that whenever someone shares disappointing or sad news with us our first inclination is to throw on a super-hero cape and deliver the perfect words that will make everything better? No matter our good intentions, what usually happens, though, is that we end up saying really stupid things—meant to be nice and comforting, mind you, but stupid nonetheless. Here are a few examples:
We say: If anyone can handle this, you can.
Why it’s stupid: In your effort prop up your friend or loved one, you’re putting unnecessary pressure and responsibility on someone who is already feeling the weight of the world. Now they have to get through the situation and deal with your expectations? Please!
We say: Everything happens for a reason.
Why it’s stupid: Not everyone believes in the same fateful, every-dot-connected life you might. The middle of a personal crisis is not the time to burden your friend with the obligation to figure out the meaning of life (theirs, yours, or anyone else’s).
We say: Your loved one can hear you/see you.
Why it’s stupid: Believing, or not believing, in the hereafter is very personal. Even if the other person is staunchly religious you may be dismissing their sadness or disappointment at not having their loved one with them in the way that they would want.
We say: You’ll be fine.
Why it’s stupid: No one has a perfect crystal ball that shows the accurate outcome 100% of the time. I think it’s one of the most dismissive things you can say to someone. It can also come across as calling the other person a liar, insinuate that they’re exaggerating, or sends a signal that you’re unwilling to listen.
We say: That happened to me, too!
Why it’s stupid: There’s no acknowledgement about what you just heard the other person say. It’s also akin to clumping a number of other poor responses into one big blurt (you’ll be fine, you can handle it, it’s not a big deal).
We say: She’s just jealous!
Why it’s stupid: We don’t know the other person’s motivation. And, really, how often have you behaved badly toward someone because you were jealous? I mean really. The reasons are rarely that simple and often have more to do with the way people make us feel than being envious of one’s money, looks, or achievements. This can come across especially stupid when a parent says it to a child; missing a great opportunity to talk about human behavior and the impact of one’s actions.
I freely admit that I am not above saying stupid things (how do you think I came up with this list?!). If I’m on my game, though, when someone shares bad news with me I take a breath—or two or three—before I respond. And, then I do this:
Listen longer than I think is necessary.
Say,” I’m sorry this is happening” and then listen some more. Most people don’t want my advice; they want my ear and my undivided attention.
Say, “How can I help?” only when I mean it. I learned a long time ago that people will say “Let me know if you need anything” and then when you do let them know they’re not really willing to do what you’ve asked. If I’m not willing to do anything they ask, I don’t offer.
Say, “I hope it all works out the way you’d like it to.” Even if I believe the writing is on the wall, making assumptions on how things will end while the person’s head is spinning doesn’t help them. The last thing they need is to get into a debate with others over the details and potential outcomes.
Then, I listen some more. I probably still say stupid things but spending more time listening than I do talking helps me say slightly less stupid things than if I just blurt out what I think sounds nice.