What Not to Say to Someone Who Is Hurting

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What Not to Say to Someone Who Is Hurting

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I know so many people who are hurting right now. Just this past week a friend called and immediately started sobbing as she told me about her third-stage cancer diagnosis. A second friend called a few days later, divulging all the anguish she’d been experiencing having to put her elderly mother in a nursing home. At lunch recently, another friend opened up about how her work colleague betrayed her and she is worried she is going to lose her job because of what happened. Someone else I know has become estranged from a family member and it is tearing her apart. Others I know are agonizing over the death of their spouses, stressful legal battles and financial troubles. You, too, might have a lot of friends who are facing intense trials.

In these types of situations, our friends really need us. They need to know that they aren’t facing their hardships alone—that others care about them and are pulling for them. And as down and discouraged as they might feel, they need reassurance that they aren’t failures for feeling the way they do, and that others recognize what they’re going through.

Extending this kind of understanding and concern is an integral part of our Christian walks. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:4 to “comfort those who are in any affliction.” In Galatians 6:2 he says to “bear one another’s burdens.” Other Bible verses highlight the importance of showing compassion to those who fare suffering (Zechariah 7:9; Colossians 3:12; 1 Peter 3:8).

Still, we might not know exactly how we should show our support. Being around someone who is crying can make us feel uncomfortable. We may not have ever experienced a setback like our friend is now confronted with, and be unsure what would be helpful to say. But we want to say something, so we’ll often just blurt out whatever pops into our heads, which doesn’t go over that well.

So how can we prevent those kinds of verbal blunders? How can we improve our comforting skills? It really starts with understanding what not to say. I’ve found that the following six responses usually do more harm than good:

1. Statements that dismiss or downplay the hurt.

Upon hearing someone’s disclosures of pain, our automatic response might be to say “Don’t cry,” “Don’t worry,” “Cheer up,” “It could be worse,” “Just let it go” or “Look at the bright side.” Or, we might try to change the subject to something “more upbeat.” We may say these things because we genuinely want to see the other person happy. But what these responses really convey to sufferers is that it’s not acceptable to express pain or sadness, and we don’t want to hear about their struggles. It can come across like we’re minimizing the severity of their difficulties, or telling them how they should think. The sufferer goes away feeling misunderstood and deserted.

Part of the problem is thinking we must always put on a cheery façade, even when confronted with adversity. But Ecclesiastes 3:4 says there’s “a time to weep.” If someone has just been dealt a huge blow, it’s normal to feel distressed. Telling someone “It’s not that bad,” will not make the situation better and won’t make the problem go away. We won’t be “bearing one others’ burdens” if we tell them their feelings of pain aren’t justified. To the contrary, we just make people feel unfairly judged for their normal reactions to grief. Even saying, “It’ll be okay,” “You’ll get through it” or “The situation could turn around a month from now,” could be taken as you don’t think the sufferer has any reason to be sad—particularly if you haven’t allowed her to share her perspectives.

2. Unsolicited advice.

For the most part, we should not rush in and offer unsolicited advice. If we do, that is another way we send the message to sufferers that we don’t think it’s okay to express sorrow and we don’t want to hear their disclosures.

A 55-year-old woman I know shared how unsolicited advice impacted her. She was struggling with a huge void in her life after her two grown kids, now in their early 20s, had each relocated to different parts of the country. It was an especially difficult change for her, as she had long been a stay-at-home mother. She told me about a recent phone call with a friend: “This is a person who has always been very much into her career, and never had kids. When I expressed how empty my life now seems, she just brushed off my feelings and told me what she thought I needed to do. Trouble is, what she insisted were solutions that might work for her personality, but not for me, and she got upset with me when I told her so.”

This woman’s experience exemplifies two big problems with dishing out unsolicited advice: Firstly, the sufferer may still be grappling with the reality of what has happened to her, and may not yet be ready to start brainstorming solutions. Secondly, what you think might remedy the problem, may not be the answer, as there may be aspects of the person’s predicament that you don’t understand or know about. If she doesn’t want to take your suggestions, you could put her in the awkward position of having to defend herself.

That said, there are times when it might be okay to offer advice—if the sufferer is past the initial shock of his calamity, and if he seems unsure what he should do. But try to get an “okay” before barreling ahead with your ideas. You might ask, “Would it be okay if I offer a suggestion?” Couch your suggestions as, “This is what has worked for me,” rather than say, “I think you should…” Allow the sufferer to make his own decision about what to do, and give him room to decline your advice if he doesn’t think it’ll work for him.

3. Critical evaluations.

Also not helpful is telling someone what you think he did (or didn’t do) to bring on his troubles. This includes making statements like, “You brought it on yourself,” “I knew this was going to happen,” “I told you so” and “If only you’d done more research.”

One man related his experiences in this regard. Shortly after graduating college, he married a woman who did not share his religious beliefs. Two years into the marriage, the woman filed for divorce, stating “religious differences” as her primary grievance. “It was a horrible breakup,” the man related, “but what made the situation even harder was all the comments I got from friends who kept reminding me that I should have known better. It’s like they were trying to rub my mistake in my face.”

Very often, sufferers are aware of what they did to bring on their misfortunes. Reminding them of what they did wrong will only make them feel more discouraged, and could come across like you are trying to make yourself look superior.

4. Drawn-out stories about your own experiences.

If you’ve been in a similar situation as the sufferer, you might be tempted to immediately start telling her about your experiences. So you might exclaim, “The same thing happened to me before. Let me tell you about it…” You then take the focus off the hurting person and redirect it onto yourself. This is not helpful. Remember, your friend came to you because she needed someone to confide in. Using the time to tell your stories can make her feel like you’re sloughing off her feelings, that you’re more interested in talking about yourself, and that you don’t care about what she is going through.

Certainly it can be okay to talk about some of your own experiences—if the sufferer knows you’ve faced similar circumstances, that can help the two of you bond—but don’t do this until after she seems finished sharing her perspectives, and be careful not to dominate the conversation. Once you’ve relayed your story, you might ask, “Is this what’s happening with you?” Always return the focus back to the sufferer.

5. Sharing your own grievances about a mutual “enemy”.

Sometimes what gets people upset relates to conflicts with others—specifically, that they feel betrayed, hurt or let down by another person. A lot of times, you might know the offending party, and maybe you’ve had run-ins with the same person yourself. If so, as your friend starts disclosing details about what happened, it’s best to not share your own gripes about the same person. If you do, the conversation will likely turn into a badmouthing session, and you will only bring your friend down even further.

Once your hurting friend has had the chance to talk about her concerns with you, encourage her to talk things out with the person who has hurt her, following the instructions in Matthew 18:15-17 to “go to your brother.” While it can help the offended party to be able to talk through what happened with a trusted individual (who will keep everything confidential), that should only be a preliminary step before addressing the conflict with the offending person.

6. Mini sermons.

If the sufferer shares the same faith as you, you might think “religious reminders” are warranted. That could mean making comments like, “This, too, shall pass,” “You just need to turn it over to God,” “Trust God and everything will be fine,” “God will use this for your good,” “Just pray more,” “You need to have faith” and “Remember that God is in charge.”

While these perspectives are good to remember, they can be crushing when offered to someone immersed in a crisis. That person may be well aware that he needs to seek God and trust Him. But he may also be physically and emotionally drained, and not be able to focus on much else other than the tragedy at hand. By blurting out these kinds of statements, we can come across as though we’re correcting the person for not being “strong enough” spiritually. It’s as if we’re saying, “If you express pain of any kind, you must not be looking to God, and you need a reminder.” Placing this kind of guilt on people who may already be tapped-out from their ordeals only adds to their burdens.

The Bible does tell us to “count it all joy” when we experience it trials (James 1:2), but realistically, the joy often doesn’t come until after the crisis is over. While we’re actually going through the trial, we ache. Hebrews 12:11 even says, “No chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful.” We shouldn’t make others feel bad for acknowledging and expressing the very real pain they are experiencing. The truth is, we can be suffering and still trust God at the same time.

What to say instead

After reading the above list, you might ask yourself, “Well, then, what am I supposed to say?!!” The answer is quite simple. You really don’t need to talk much at all. The main thing to do is to listen to what your friend has to say and try to understand what she’s going through. Let her talk about what’s troubling her, without interrupting her. Once you’ve heard her disclosures, you could say, “I’m sorry to hear this,” “You’ve been through a lot,” I can see why you’re hurt” or “That sounds really difficult.” These comments communicate genuine concern and acceptance.

If your friend cries, don’t try to stop her. You might even cry with her. Romans 12:15 tells us to “Weep with those who weep.” I’ve done that with friends, and friends have shed tears for me too. We really feel like others are bearing our burdens when they cry with us.

Tell your friend that you care about her and will be praying for her. James 5:16 says “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (New International Version). To say, “I’ll pray for you,” and mean it is enormously encouraging.

Knowing how to comfort others is important. We live in a world filled with despair, heartache and grief. Consequently, we’re going to encounter individuals who are hurting and “need to talk.” We need to be ready for these kinds of situations. Our friends and loved ones will feel encouraged when we are empathetic listeners, validate their perspectives and stick with them when they’re down.