Have you ever been in a situation and just didn’t know what to say? Maybe someone was mourning the loss of a loved one, or was given bad news by the doctor, or just revealed some painful secret, and you wanted to say something. You even think you should have said something, but you didn’t know what to say.
Here are 3 things you can say when you don’t know what to say, plus 3 things to avoid.
- “I don’t know what to say.”
Recently I caught up with a friend whom I haven’t spoken to in years. She told me that she and her husband had divorced and she was in a new relationship. Unprovoked, she proceeded to tell me intimate details about why the marriage didn’t work.
As I was on the phone listening, I was thinking in my mind “I don’t want to know this.” and “What in the world am I supposed to say after she is done?”.
I was completely stumped. I wish I could tell you that I took the advice I am presenting here, but I didn’t. I floundered around for a bit. I started rambling and made no sense. Lots of phrases like “uhs”, “well”, and “ya know what I mean” were used. I was hoping she would know what I meant because I surely didn’t.
Later I realized that there is nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t know what to say”. It prevents you from floundering and it protects the other person from some insincere comment that you think you should say.
According to Henrik Edberg, a Swedish writer, admitting you don’t know what to say releases you from being perfect. “Realize that you don’t always have to have the best answer or say the perfect thing. No one is expecting that except you.”
- “I’m here for you.”
This is a powerful phrase because usually in times of difficulty, people question everything they have come to believe. They wonder who can they trust or who will stick by them. Only say this statement if you actually mean it and can back it up with your actions. Make yourself available.
Sometimes saying nothing and being present is the best solution. Consider this: The person talking will have already said to him or herself EVERYTHING you might be inclined to say or ask. They may also be racked with guilt thinking of how they must look to others. They are wrestling with those emotions already. In speaking to my friend, when I did manage to shut up and just listen, she expressed how as a Christian, she felt guilty because she believed getting divorced was the best thing she could have done. She was conflicted because she never felt closer to God in her life through this situation.
She didn’t need my theology at that moment. She was seeking a safe place to release and by saying nothing I gave that to her.
Don’t say this
Figuring out what to say can be made easier by first learning what not to say. Keep in mind, we say the following things because we intend to be helpful, but they really are just annoying if they aren’t sincere or come at the wrong time.
- “He or she is in a better place.” Even if you and the other person believe this, it may not be the right time to say it. It just comes off placating and patronizing.
- “I understand what you are going through.” This statement is usually followed by an lengthy explanation of why you understand. This shifts the attention from the hurting or grieving party and puts the focus on you. In essence, you don’t know what to say, so you start talking about yourself. That comes across self-centered.
- “Is there anything I can do?” Most likely there is plenty to be done, but the person might not be in a rational state of mind to tell you. So, they will say, “No, but thanks.” Then you’ll say, “Ok, well call me if you need anything.” Now, the hurting party has to find things for you to do and then track you down to ask if you can do it. They would rather not bother you and spend days either doing it themselves or not doing it. If you know the person well, just do what needs to be done. Just for starters, you could pick up groceries, do the dishes, take the kids to school, gather the mail, or do the laundry. See a need and fill it.
Marriage and family Therapist, Andrea Wachter, lists over 20 phrases or questions one can ask when they don’t know what to say. These phrases and questions cover an array of different scenarios. Just remember to be sincere and act authentically.
What would you add to the “Say this” or “Don’t say this” list?
Leave your comment here.