What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say

HildyBy Hildy Agustin, Psy.D.
Therapist and Facilitator of the Recovery & Renewal Support Group at Breast Cancer Connections

I work a lot with people who have had gone through difficult experiences.  And the one thing I hear over and over again is that people seem not to know what to say to someone who is going through a hard time.

I understand how this can happen. Some people drift away when someone they care about is suffering; they don’t know what to say, don’t want to say the wrong thing, so they say nothing. Other people, while trying to be helpful, say something, and end up hurting the person they care about.

I think we all know that most people mean well and are doing the very best they can. Very few people wake up in the morning with the intention of hurting someone, even less so related to someone they care about. People are trying their best, they just don’t know what to do or say.

No one always knows what to say, and everyone is different. But I’d like to offer you some guidelines that I’ve learned while working with people who have been through a wide variety of difficult experiences.

1)   You don’t have to do anything spectacular, as long as you let the person know you care. If you don’t know what to say, it’s okay to say so.  Just saying “I heard about _________________. I was sorry to hear it, and I want you to know I’m thinking about you,” is a lovely sentiment.  It keeps the doors of conversation open, and lets the person know that you care.

2)   You don’t have to be a very close friend to let someone know that you care. My clients tell me that they have been touched to hear from people they didn’t know very well-that all warm thoughts are appreciated.  For instance, you might say “I know we don’t know each other well, but when I heard about ________________, I wanted to reach out to you and let you know that you’re in my thoughts.”

3)   Please do not presume you know how they feel, even if you’ve experienced something similar. Each person is so different, your experience cannot be exactly like theirs.  Saying “I know just how you feel,” or “I went through the same thing, and trust me, you’ll get over it,” usually comes from a very empathetic place, but the truth is that you don’t know how they feel.  Get curious about how they feel, and you may be surprised that even if the events are similar, the feelings may be quite different.

4)   Let them know that you’re available if they want to talk (if this is true), but that it’s also fine if they don’t want to talk. People vary widely in their interest in talking following difficult experiences. Some want to debrief, others want to withdraw and recover. You can support this by saying something like “If you feel like talking, I’d love to be a listening, supportive ear.  If you don’t feel like talking, just know that I’m thinking of you and I’m here if you need me.”

5)    Don’t try to make meaning of the suffering for them, or try to place your understanding of the meaning on the other person’s suffering. Telling the person that it is part of a divine plan, or that everything happens for a reason may not match their own vision of the world. Let them arrive at their own understanding of what their suffering means to them.

6)   Let the other person know that they’re not alone.  You don’t have to fix it, don’t have to explain it, don’t have to do anything at all. All you have to let them know that you’re on their side.

It’s a real gift to reach out with compassion and care to someone who is suffering. I encourage you to give it a try, even if you’re not feeling perfectly confident about what to say. I encourage you to use the guidelines above as a jumping off place, but not as a script. Be yourself, communicate your genuine care, and let me know how it goes.