We’ve all been in that conversation where someone shares something personal or painful with us and we just don’t know what to say. Do we apologize? Is this the time to say “deepest sympathies”? This may have even happened to you recently because we’ve all been through some seriously tough stuff this year.

Perhaps someone shared with you that a loved one recently passed away or that a family member had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Or, a stranger at the grocery store shared with you that they’ve recently lost a job. Maybe even your own child confided in you how hard it is for them to do school online and how badly they miss their friends and teachers. Folks tell us these things, hopeful that we will say the right thing and bring a bit of comfort to their hurting hearts.

It took me a while to learn how to respond the best way during difficult conversations. And sometimes, I still get it wrong. But I keep trying! Here are some ideas about how to respond with kindness to people around us who are hurting.

When You Don’t Know What To Say…

Use Your Ears First

Sometimes, folks just need to talk and let it out. Your only job in these exchanges is to listen, so pay attention!

Look to Validate

When people share feelings, they want to know that they are allowed to have those feelings and that their feelings matter and are accepted. Be sure to let them know you’re listening and hearing them by saying things like “Oh, I see,” and “Okay.” 

Practice Empathy

Imagine how you’d be feeling if you were experiencing what this loved one is going through. Learning to be genuinely empathetic is a powerful tool that will help you truly connect with others.

Body Language Matters

It’s important to look people in the eye and nod when they are talking. Nodding doesn’t mean that you necessarily agree with what they’re saying; it’s more of a signal that you’re listening to them. It can be a little difficult to communicate with people when we’re both wearing masks, I’ve found, because no one can see my mouth or facial expressions. Use other forms of body language like nodding, touching the arm of the person talking (if appropriate) or taking a seat next to them. If it’s a close friend or family member, an arm around the shoulders, a hug or hand holding may be welcome.

Don’t Advise

Now isn’t the time to give your friend advice on how to remedy her situation. Unless you’re directly asked, keep your suggestions to yourself for now. This is the time to listen.

Be Honest

If someone is experiencing something hard or sad, it’s ok to speak that truth out loud. When I experienced a miscarriage many years ago, someone said to me, “Oh wow, that’s really sad.” It was the first time someone honestly acknowledged my sadness out loud. Their honesty was powerful to me. There’s no need to apologize for the hardship someone is enduring, but saying out loud “Wow, this sounds like a hard time” can be very powerful to hear. 

At the end of the day, being kind counts in our relationships. It counts with the stranger in the store, with our neighbors, and with our closest friends and family. When we respond kindly, we will always have good things to say.

don't know what to say