What to say (that actually helps) when people are struggling.
Updated: Sep 14
The current events we are experiencing have everyone under more stress and strain than I have witnessed in my lifetime. Uncertainty and anxiety are everywhere. Now more than ever we need to find ways to authentically support each other.
So what do you say to someone when they are going through a particularly tough time? We’ve all been there. Maybe a friend is struggling with the whole idea of the pandemic, or their family member passed away. Maybe someone loses the job or business that they’ve had for 25 years, or the changes that are being implemented at work are so overwhelming and stressful that they just can’t handle it. Or maybe someone we care about is just having a really bad day. We feel terrible that they are struggling, but don’t always know what to say in that moment. We offer our help, bring casseroles or donuts (I prefer donuts) and try to take the burden off as much as we can. But what can we say that would be helpful, or at the very least not make things worse?
Talking to people who are going through something difficult is hard for us for several reasons. First, we wish we could fix it or make it disappear. Most people don’t enjoy watching people they love go through tough times. When we are unable to change the situation we feel helpless.
Second, when people experience difficult situations it often comes with a slew of legitimate emotions- and usually the ones that other people are least comfortable with: anger, sadness, frustration, grief to name a few.
Another reason it can be awkward to talk to people who are struggling is because we don’t want to say anything that will make it worse. This usually invites the short and concise: “I’m sorry for your loss.” Or “I’m sorry,” and then nothing else. If you don’t know the person very well this is actually fine. If you are better friends or closer acquaintances this is a little bit of an unwanted response because it can feel a little cold or distant to the person who is struggling.
Lastly, the situation might be touching a nerve within us, bringing up our own emotions that we’d rather not deal with, making us shy away from talking to our friend in order to protect ourselves.
So what do we typically say? What is our “go to” response besides “I’m sorry”?
When we see someone going through a difficult time, our first response is often to say something to remind the person to look on the bright side: “He had a lot of good years.” “She is in a better place now.” One I used to say a lot but don’t anymore: “Everything happens for a reason.” “A better job is coming your way.” These are all very well intentioned responses, but unfortunately they also negate and invalidate the feelings of loss, fear, anger etc that the person is experiencing in that moment. In short: Saying those things actually makes people feel worse. It makes people feel worse, because to them you might as well be saying “It’s ridiculous that you are upset about this.”
So even if you believe that people are in a better place after they die, or that another “better” job will come along, just don’t say it when you are attempting to comfort someone.
So what IS the right thing to say or do? Well, studies have taught us that showing true empathy, thus creating a connection, or “life line” is the way to go. According to Brene Brown, Phd and social scientist from the University of Houston, there are 4 qualities of empathy:
1- Perspective Taking: essentially this is the well known “put yourself in the other person’s shoes” mentality. Try to really imagine how they are seeing this situation. Or ask them if you feel comfortable.
2- Be non-judgmental. It doesn’t matter if it makes any sense to you, or if you would handle the situation differently. This is about them.
3- Recognize the emotion in others and feel it with them. Meet them where they are and let them be there. Be there with them.
4- Communicating and understanding. Letting them know that they are not alone and that you understand how they feel even if you haven’t been through that exact situation before.
-“This is so hard. I can tell you are in pain. I am here with you. We’ll get through this together.”
-“I don’t know what to say right now, but I’m so glad you told me. I’m here for you.”
Letting the person know that you clearly see what they are going through, and that you are willing to stand beside them and be with them while they are going through it are really the keys to saying something that might help someone feel better.
If you feel the need to keep talking, then try asking them questions about where they are or what they need:
“What can I do for you right now/What do you need right now from me?”
“Do you feel like talking or would you rather I just give you a hug ( or open a case of wine, fly you to a deserted island, beat up whoever hurt your feelings, or pretend all of this isn’t happening)?
A good friend (and very wise and intelligent woman named Jude Hines) once told me that one of the best things you can say and do when someone is having a bad day is to simply acknowledge the hardship by saying “That just sucks” and then sit down beside them to let them know you are in it with them.
We’ve all been the person who has said the wrong thing and probably felt bad after saying it. We’ve also all been the person who the wrong thing was said to. And it felt horrible, worsening an already bad situation by helping us to feel even more alone or misunderstood.
In the words of Brene Brown, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes it better is connection.”
We could all use a little more connection in our lives. Especially now.