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What to say?

Years ago, a friend of mine stopped me as we were passing in the hallway at work and shared a personal struggle that she was going through. I was taken aback by what she was sharing and just started talking as a response. I am sure that I did not put much thought into what I was saying, I just felt that I needed to say something. She ended the conversation by saying, “I was not asking for help or for you to fix it. I just wanted you to know what I am dealing with right now.”

This was a significant learning moment. I learned the value of listening and the importance of my response. I know that I am not alone in this struggle. Some of the most asked questions that Henrieta and I get are “What do you say when you don’t know what to say?” and “How should we respond to intense emotions like grief, sadness, happiness, and uncertainty when they are shared with us?”

The answer is that there is not one perfect answer. Every encounter is unique. The good news is that there are some skills that we can build to help. The first and most important is active listening. I heard what my friend was saying but I was not truly listening, I was focused on fixing. Active listening involves eyes, ears, words, and body language. Emotional intelligence and empathy are very useful in these encounters. Recognizing, understanding, and managing others’ emotions and our own emotions can really make a difference. In the situation with my friend, I did not take a read on my emotions or hers, I just reacted. I felt empathy for her, but my response was not empathetic. I was too focused on the idea that I needed to do or say something.

I have found that words are valuable but sometimes silence is more valuable. I have experienced firsthand the value of a quiet presence in my life. Sharing life’s challenges with another person helps to re-enforce the feeling that we are not alone. I am a verbal processor so having someone just listen gives me the space and time to find my own resolutions.

I now keep several phrases in my ‘toolbox’ to help me, phrases like; ‘tell me more’, ‘I am sorry to hear that’, ‘I am here for you’ or an honest ‘I don’t know what to say’. When using special phrases like these I need to make sure that I am authentic with my response.

If I could go back in time, I would handle this situation much differently. I would really listen to my friend and reflect what I was hearing. My response would genuinely be appreciation that she shared with me, and an honest - I am so sorry that you are going through this, just know that I am here for you if you need me.

Have you ever had a similar situation? What do you say or do when you don’t know what to say or do? Do you have some phrases that you find helpful? If so, what are they?

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