Not knowing what to say to someone about their difficult news? Why do we tend to turn this into a problem? How about honouring our feeling? Because this does not stop us from being with the other in a helpful and meaningful way. Because not knowing what to say is ok.
Not knowing what to say is human and not a failure
We all know the feeling, when someone tells us of their bad fortune, and we don’t know what to say to them. When we hear of serious illness, death or other hardships, we wonder what we could possibly say, that is appropriate and of use. Much advice is out there on what to say – on all sorts of human misery.
Even if this is not you, then you will know people who feel exactly like that.
I know it’s easy to get stuck in our tracks, when confronted with sudden, shocking news. But that’s understandable – because it is sudden and because it is shocking. How else can we possibly respond – initially?
Why does not knowing what to say leave us feeling uncomfortable? How about honouring what we feel, first, and then see where that leads us regards a response to the other? Why this concern with what to say and how to get it right?
Getting it right is driven by self criticism and a belief in perfectionism. But perfectionism should not be applied to human feelings. And some would argue, perfectionism is an unhelpful illusion – full stop!
Why are we busy ignoring our feelings and looking for off-the-shelf advice? As if there was a blue print for dealing with shocking news.
Or could it be, because we know exactly what we feel, and may find that shocking and inappropriate to share? The situation when someone else’s bad news affects us, too, and we feel trapped? Or it reminds us of our own experiences and pain?
What do you expect others to say to you
Let’s turn things around. You have probably been at the other end of such scenarios. You, too, may have shared serious news of your own with others. Did you have any particular expectations of how you would like them to respond? And do you remember whether this matched up with what it was like, or not?
What do we expect and what do we need?
I can only speak for myself: I hope for
empathy, genuine emotion, not overwhelming me with questions, listening, asking me what (if anything) I need, non-judging, not trying to fix, not trying to be smart, not turning the other way, not avoiding me.
What about you?
Assuming your own list is at least somewhat similar, then I assume further, that you do not expect the other to have all (or any) answers.
So why do we worry so much about what to say or not? I don’t know about you, but people in a crisis are not oblivious to when others fake – feelings, interest, attitudes.
The worst that can happen is when in a crisis, those we thought of as close and trustworthy are nowhere to be seen, or show fake emotions. “Good riddance” you may say. But it hurts!
Honouring not knowing what to say and leaving it at that
Fear of not knowing what to say can shut us down; it distracts from the real feelings and meaningful presence with the other.
Just being and observing how you feel will leave you calm, less stressed, more grounded, more open and available to yourself and the other.
Would it not be human, a sign of strength, self awareness and wisdom to stay with our immediate feeling, and respond out of that?
“I am shocked … I don’t know what to say … How are you feeling … What can I do to help …”
I would hope that anyone with whom I have shared upsetting news in the past, or may do so in the future, will not feel obliged or compelled to research widely to come up with what to say or not.
Being truthful, despite the difficult emotions we may have, is hard but also a sign of strength.
Saying that we don’t know what to say implies that
- we ought tho know what to say
- and that there is a right and wrong way of responding.
Personally speaking, I don’t think that is so.
The strength and healing power of the unspoken word
Saying “I am speechless” or just not saying anything at all, that is ok. Because that other language will take over – our body language, and our emotional (and spiritual) presence. Both can offer comfort, trust, hope and healing in a way that the spoken word may not.
Tapping into our unspoken world and truth of emotions requires self awareness and a certain degree of trust and confidence in who we are.
In that moment we share our own vulnerability with another, who is also vulnerable.
This can lead to a very special moment of combined strength and human energy.
Genuine empathy and being with the other in their time of need is powerful and more important, then figuring out what to say or not.
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Need some advice? Submit your question to my #DearKarin advice column here. Karin Sieger BA (Hons), MA (PsychCouns), Reg. MBACP (Accred) is a therapist and writer. All rights reserved © Karin Sieger. Neither articles nor videos substitute medical advice or therapy.