What to Say When We Don’t Know What to Say?

It’s common to feel scared or unsure of what to say or do when someone we know gets sick or is suffering. Sometimes, we lack confidence around which words would sound reassuring and comforting vs. triggering and overwhelming. Other times, fear paralyzes us, causing us not to reach out at all. Other times, still, our loved ones don’t want to talk, or can’t find the words themselves – there’s just too much anxiety and frenzy around a new diagnosis or challenging life moment that being articulate just isn’t in the cards. 

As we're in the middle of Pinktober, a month focused heavily on breast cancer awareness, we thought we’d shed some light on how we can have a positive impact, even when we don’t know exactly what someone needs. Whether it’s a life-altering situation such as disease, divorce or death, or an ongoing, painful phase of life for other reasons, following are some tips on how to offer love that’s easy (or easier)  to receive.

Leading with Authenticity

When someone we care about is facing a difficult life experience, we often feel pressure to know the perfect thing to say or do to make them feel better. But the truth is, most times, there isn’t any such thing. Becoming consumed with what’s right and wrong in these moments can not only can be troubling or nerve-wracking mentally, it also can prevent us from even showing up. 

Instead of trying to guess the “right” thing to say, consider just being honest. Offer something as simple as, “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know I’m here.” It can be the difference between someone feeling alone and someone feeling joined. If we were to ask anyone who’s already faced hardships, most would attest that just having someone along for the journey - the good, bad and the ugly - made more of an impact than any phrase or pep talk. Being fully present means standing with someone in the unknowns and the darkness.

Make It About Them, Truly

Even our best efforts to offer love and support can backfire inadvertently. Calling too frequently or asking too many questions may be unsettling or put pressure on our loved ones to speak about things before they’re ready. Allowing them to come forward in their own time is critical, as is withholding our own opinions, thoughts and questions. Many patients can recall moments when, even soon after a diagnosis, they felt compelled to reassure their loved ones that they’d be ok or offer explanations to quell their fears – ultimately taking care of others over themselves. The best thing we can do is allow our friend or family member the time and space needed to process it internally. And in the meantime, simple gestures like heart emoji texts or dropping of meals can be thoughtful, unobtrusive reminders of our presence. Offering love, performing acts of service and being sure not to ask for anything in return are key components to providing meaningful care.

Lean Into Empathy

The Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Sounds simple, right? It can be, but at times, we can conflate sympathy or trying to help with actual empathy. When we are truly being empathetic, we’re intuiting and asking questions, not offering accolades or advice. We’re putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, considering various aspects of their lives such as family, work, access to support, etc., and honoring it all. Sometimes, attempts to be empathetic end up feeling the opposite to those on the receiving end, so it’s important to set our personal fears or thoughts aside in respect for the other. 

In a previous Journal article, we featured Empathy Expert Kelsey Crowe, a two-time breast cancer thriver, the leader of Empathy Workshops in San Francisco, and the co-author of There Is No Good Card For This: What to Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to the People You Love. In our interview, Kelsey offered that “We (or well, most of us) are actually hardwired for empathy – even infants can show signs of it, same with animals! But what happens is that we start having our empathy moderated by things in our life, like stress and social norms, which can override our natural empathetic responses.” 

Two Types of Empathy

So, how to remain true to our natural empathetic responses? There are actually two types of empathy – emotional and cognitive. Emotional empathy refers to the phenomenon of being able to feel the same emotions as another person. Sometimes emotional empathy can be further complicated by the distress we experience when feeling the pain of another, so it’s important to compartmentalize our emotions and focus on the compassion we want to offer.

Cognitive empathy is about intellectually perceiving and understanding the sentiments of another. This skill can be learned and take time to cultivate. A huge component of cognitive empathy is curiosity and being willing to set aside our personal biases to better comprehend the experiences of another. 

Here are some tips for being empathetic:

  1. Practice active listening. Engage deeply with the words of another. Make eye contact. Minimize distractions. Focus on being attentive, nodding or gently touching the other to let them know you’re present. Respond with open-ended questions, not advice.
  2. Don’t judge. Offer support and kindness. Imagine what it’s like to be in that person’s shoes and respond from a place of compassion and relating.
  3. Reflect back. Instead of verbatim repeating what someone has told you, find a fresh way to reiterate the essence of what they said. Show that you’ve heard them with warmth and acceptance.
  4. Be consistent. Continue to show up. Offer personal support to them and their families. 
  5. Offer small gestures. Drop off a meal without being asked. Send loving text messages. Find ways to give without asking for anything, not even a thank you, in return. 

Truly being present with another person requires vulnerability, strength and lots of compassion.  It is not our responsibility to have the perfect advice or words of encouragement at the ready. Rather, the act of offering authenticity and empathy enable both the giver and the receiver to grow closer and share profound experiences together. 

“Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that happen. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.” Barack Obama