Last week’s post was an encouragement to reach out to people in our lives who are going through tough times. Knowing how it feels to go through the hardest period of life and have many people remain silent, I deeply believe that even imperfect human contact is better than isolation. One thing I said in the post was, “Don’t overthink it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what to say. Say something.”
This post is NOT an exercise in back-pedaling. I absolutely mean what I said. Saying something is better than saying nothing. But some things we say to hurting people can make them feel worse. What are the less (or not at all) helpful things we sometimes inadvertently say, out of the best of intentions? And how do we avoid saying THOSE things?
Just a little bit of forethought can be the difference between helping and making things worse. So with that in mind, here is a humble (and in no way exhaustive) list of some things to and not to say.
The “Don’t Say” List:
“Here’s what you need to do.” Don’t give easy solutions. This is the go-to of the “fixer” personality. Most people want to help, but the truth is there may not be anything you or they can do to immediately improve their situation. Fixing also often comes from a discomfort we feel at just sitting with someone in their pain.
“You should read __________.” There are a lot of great Scriptures and books that may deal with whatever your friend is going through. And odds are, if you walk with them as a faithful friend, there will be a great time to share them. Maybe just not too soon, though.
“God won’t give you more than you can handle.” This is bull-crap. Sorry, but it is. God routinely gives us more than we can handle. If we can handle every situation, why do we need God? Saying this suggests that the person should be able to deal with whatever the situation is…ON THEIR OWN. You just said it. They can handle it. So if they can’t handle it, now they feel shame and failure on top of the original issue.
“You just need to __________.” The use of the word “just” to someone who is hurting is a sensitive one for me. I hate most uses of that word, because I feel like it tends to automatically minimize whatever the person is going through. Plus, telling them what YOU think they should do kind of communicates a “know it all” attitude that probably will not help them.
“Here’s why this is happening…” We’re not omniscient. Let’s not pretend we are. The truth is there could be 100 “reasons” God has for why He causes and/or allows certain things into a person’s life. For us to try to figure it out and speak authoritatively about it is kind of arrogant. Particularly avoid telling the person what they did wrong to get themselves into a situation. Time and place…time and place.
“When this happened to me…” There is definitely a time and place for sharing our own experience. This one is not so much an absolute “don’t say,” but more of a “don’t make it about you” kind of thing. Let the focus be on them…it’ll let them know you care.
“What do you need?” This generally comes from a great place, a true desire to help. But if the other person’s world is devastated, they may have no idea what they need. Offering help but making them figure out and tell you what help they need can be overwhelming.
“I’m going to pray for you.” How many times have you told this well-intentioned lie? A lot of times, if we don’t pray right then, we aren’t going to remember to do it at all.
The “Do Say” List:
“I love you.” Maybe you’ve told them this before. Maybe a lot. Tell them again. Depending on what they’re going through, they may not believe it. Even if they do, it will help them to hear it again.
“I’m here.” Hurting people tend to feel very alone. Let them know that they’re not. Being there emotionally AND physically (as in actually being there with them) is comforting, even if you don’t DO anything. Remember that Job’s friends did a great job right up until the part where they started talking.
“I’m sorry this is happening.” This is a great thing to say whether their situation comes as a direct result of their own sin, or if it came through no fault or contribution of their own. You’re not saying that anything that led to the situation is OK…you’re just simply and honestly empathizing with where they are now.
“I don’t know why this is happening.” You may feel bad not being able to give an explanation. They probably don’t expect or need you to give an explanation. The fact that you’re with them is probably enough.
“Do you want me to just listen, or do you want feedback?” You may be unsure as to whether or not they’re asking for advice. To avoid going into “fixer” mode, you can simply clarify. They may just be venting, and if you can resist fixing a problem they’re not asking you to fix, that alone could make them feel very valued.
“Can I do __________ for you?” Instead of the general “what do you need” question, this one shows that you’ve observed and have an idea of some tangible thing that they may need to get done, and that you’re willing to step in and help them with it. Since hurting people often can’t focus enough to even know what they need, this can help them feel cared for.
“Is it OK if I pray for you right now?” Even if your prayer is telling God that you don’t really know what to say or ask for, hearing you pray for them can make your friend know how special they are to you and to God.