My book club friend returns to the group after several months, having lost not one but two daughters to breast cancer, both within a month of each other. – What do I say to a mother who has outlived 3 out of her 4 children?
Your buddy who was out of work for 18 months was just laid off from his latest job after just 6 months, with few new job prospects in sight. – Tough break; more tough times coming…no, can’t say that.
You bump into a former boss who was diagnosed with ALS 6 years ago, who is wheelchair bound and cannot speak but can understand every word. – Haven’t seen you in awhile, how are you doing? Oh, dear, not appropriate!
In all these cases, when the situation is uncomfortably difficult, and you’re really at a loss for words, but know you should say something, what exactly do you say?
These are the times when communication is so necessary to show that you care and want to give genuine support, but the thoughts running through your head are blank about what’s the appropriate thing to say without putting your proverbial foot in your mouth. What does the person really want to hear?
What would you want to hear, if it were you? Since you may not have much or even any experience with the situation, you know that if you say, “I feel for you” it’s not true, since without firsthand experience, you might try to imagine, but you don’t really know what they’re feeling.
So a helplessness, a loss for words causes you to say nothing at all, avoiding the subject or the person altogether, which doesn’t help. Sparing you discomfort is not the point. Yet speaking the wrong words may make it worse…
What’s needed is a process to follow, to learn for the next time you are faced with a seriously difficult communication situation. This 5-step process, which is well known in counseling, is the best way to communicate when a situation is difficult.
Step 1: Listen. Just listen; don’t interrupt, don’t attempt to console, don’t ask a bunch of questions. Just be that silent open ear that’s there for them, which lets the other person feel fully heard, not rushed, able to get out all they want to share. Soothing sounds, fully attentive listening.
Step 2: Affirm. Once they have finished and it’s your turn to say something, those first words are simply a back up of their feelings. Acknowledging their emotion and their right to have it is important to do. Not telling them what they must be feeling, or what you would feel if it was you; affirm what they have expressed. Period.
Step 3: Give hope. There is always hope, for without hope, all is lost. Although hope may be slim, there is always a reason to go on. When there is a fatal loss, there is still hope for future happiness. Life outside of loss goes on and memories live on.
Step 4: Be present. Give the person your full attention and stay in the present moment with them. It’s too easy to get distracted and lose the presence that’s needed. Being present means keeping your mind on the person, not distractedly thinking of errands and schedules and activities. The best way to be present is to breathe deeply and focus on your breathing, which grounds you in the present moment.
Step 5: Stop talking. The last step is silence. Silence can be golden. When you are with another person, fully present with them and silent, you are “saying” all the right things.