Life, Hope & Truth

From the January/February 2018 issue of Discern Magazine

What NOT to Say When Someone Is Suffering

Knowing what to say and not say to someone who is facing trials can be challenging. These practical tips can help.

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While sipping on a latte at a coffee shop, I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation at the table next to me. There sat three women, one visibly upset.

“I just got a call telling me I didn’t get the job I really thought I had,” sobbed the distressed woman. “I don’t think I’m ever going to find work.”

Her friends sat motionless for a minute, and then each offered something to try to turn her mood around. “Don’t worry—you’re so smart, you’ll find something soon,” one friend told her.

“It’s probably for the best,” the other assured her. “Come on, smile. We don’t want to see tears. How about I treat you to a movie tonight to get your mind off job-hunting?”

“No, thanks,” sighed the woman, who now seemed frustrated on top of being depressed.

Insensitive comments

At that point, I walked out of the coffee shop, thinking about the exchange between the three women. It’s not that I thought it was unusual, but I certainly could relate. I’ve been the recipient of these kind of remarks before, and I’ve felt misunderstood and alone as a result. And truthfully, too many times I’ve also been the one who blurted out the insensitive comments.

This is not to imply that when our words discourage someone else, it’s a matter of hurtful intentions. Quite the contrary. We may sincerely want to help. Yet when others share their sorrows, it can make us feel uncomfortable. We might not know what to say or may feel awkward with silence, so we utter platitudes to fill the void, not realizing what messages we’re sending. Or, we might switch the subject to something more cheerful to make ourselves feel better.

The sufferer, on the other hand, doesn’t go away feeling encouraged, but may actually feel worse.

Still, we need to do our best to support those who are struggling, even if we’re not a natural at it. The Bible tells us to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Galatians 6:2 says we should “bear one another’s burdens.” Other verses stress the importance of showing compassion (Colossians 3:12; Zechariah 7:9; 1 Peter 3:8).

Four things NOT to say

Very often, being truly supportive starts with knowing what NOT to say when someone expresses hurt, grief or discouragement. I’ve found that the following four responses usually do more harm than good:

1. Dismissing the sufferer’s feelings.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when someone tells you bad news is to deny you heard anything troubling. “People get so panicky about not knowing what to do or say that they shut the suffering person out to make themselves feel more comfortable,” says psychology professor Sandra Burkhardt of Saint Xavier University. Most people don’t do this intentionally, she adds. “They may actually mean well and not even realize how they’re coming across.”

Changing the subject, making jokes or coming up with reasons why the problem isn’t a problem cut off communication and tell the sufferer that it’s not all right to express sorrow.

Comments like “Don’t worry,” “Don’t cry,” “Cheer up,” “It could be worse,” “It’s not that bad,” “Everything will be fine” and “Look at the bright side” can do the same thing.

When you respond in these ways, you are in effect casting aside the sufferers’ concerns and telling them you’re not interested in hearing about their struggles. This can leave them feeling unheard, misunderstood or deserted. They may feel as though they’re being corrected for feeling the way they do. Their burden becomes heavier, not lighter.

Part of the problem is thinking that when we’re facing trials, we must always put on a cheery façade, even if we’re hurting. But Ecclesiastes 3:4 says there’s “a time to weep.” It’s okay to admit we’re in pain.

Those who are hurting need you to accept their feelings and acknowledge what they’re going through. Reassure them that their concerns are valid. Allow them to be sad, grieve or cry when they’re with you. Don’t expect them to pretend that everything is normal just so you can feel more comfortable.

2. Making yourself the focus.

Other times, instead of trying to shut down a sufferer’s disclosures, you may very much relate to him or her. You may not be able to resist saying, “You think that’s bad? Let me tell you what happened to me!” However, in doing so, you take the focus off the hurting person and put it onto yourself.

Remember, the sufferer came to you because he or she needed someone to confide in. Using the time to tell your stories can be very frustrating to the sufferer, Dr. Burkhardt says, and can make the person “feel like you’re sloughing off her feelings and not giving her a chance to express what she is going through.”

Furthermore, if you present your experiences as “worse” or “more serious” than other people’s, you may come across as though you’re trying to upstage them, or that you think their problems are trivial in comparison to yours.

Of course, sharing your personal stories can sometimes help build connections with others because they know you’ve “been there.” The way to do this effectively is to not one-up them with what you say or dominate the conversation. When you’ve finished describing your experience, you might ask, “Is this like what’s happening with you?” Always return the focus back to the sufferer.

3. Offering unsolicited advice.

How to solve the sufferer’s dilemma may seem obvious to you, but resist the temptation to give unsolicited advice. Oftentimes when people disclose their troubles, they already know what they should do. When they come to you, they may be looking for comfort and understanding—not ways to fix their problems. Barraging them with solutions is another way to tell them you don’t want to hear their disclosures.

“Basically, you are telling yourself, if I can distract my friend by giving her some brilliant advice, she’ll stop crying,” says Dr. Burkhardt.

Unsolicited advice can also put sufferers in an awkward position if they don’t take your suggestions. One woman shared her predicament after her husband was diagnosed with cancer: “We got lots of opinions from friends for herbal supplements to try, cleansing diets, natural remedies, whether to undergo chemotherapy, and on and on,” she relates. “Frankly, we had carefully researched our options, and knew most of their suggestions weren’t for us. Yet each time we were presented with another idea, we basically had to defend the course of action we were taking.”

If the sufferer asks for advice, it may be okay to give it, but only share what helped you personally, rather than make specific recommendations. So, rather than say, “I think you should …,” state, “This is what works for me.” Allow the person with the problem to make his or her own decision about what to do.

4. Dishing out correction.

When people are truly downtrodden, what they need most is comfort and support—not an assessment of what they could have done to circumvent their calamities.You might also think you know what the sufferer did to cause his or her predicament. But once again, sharing this kind of insight is not usually helpful. Most of the time, when people find themselves in a crisis, they have already “beaten themselves up” over what they should or shouldn’t have done. Telling them, “If only you hadn’t been so slow to act,” “If only you’d done more research,” or “If only you’d seen it coming,” is not going to remedy the current scenario. It may only make them feel more discouraged.

The classic biblical example of this is found in the book of Job. When Job was at his lowest point, his friends corrected and criticized him, accusing him of bringing on his own suffering. Instead of lightening his burdens, they added to Job’s anguish and put him on the defensive.

Job said, “A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends” (Job 6:14). True, there are times when it becomes necessary to go to others and tell them what they’re doing wrong—but not when they’re in the furnace of affliction.

When people are truly downtrodden, what they need most is comfort and support—not an assessment of what they could have done to circumvent their calamities.

How should we respond?

Being truly encouraging isn’t as confusing as it might seem. Three of the best things you can do are really quite simple:

1. Listen.

More than anything, those who are hurting just want to talk to someone who will listen. Give them your full attention and try to understand why they feel the way they do. Allow them to take the conversation to wherever they need it to go. By listening attentively, you show that you genuinely care about them.

2. Accept the situation for what it is.

When those who are suffering say something negative, try not to let it upset you. It may be hard to hear, but realize they’re in a lot of pain. Just let them talk, because at that moment, that’s exactly how they feel. If they need to cry, let them. Responses such as “You’ve been through a lot” and “I’m sorry to hear what happened” communicate concern and acceptance.

3. Remind sufferers that they’re not alone.

Tell them you will stand by them during this difficult time and help in any way you can. Reassure them that you are pulling for them and praying about the situation. James 5:16 says, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” To say “I’ll pray for you” and mean it is enormously encouraging, and it will bond you together.

For the most part, people who are hurting aren’t expecting you to deliver eloquent words or profound solutions to their problems. But they are hoping you will be there for them and be by their side, even if everything you say doesn’t come out perfectly.

What matters most is having another’s support and not having to face difficult times alone.

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