What to Say–When You Don’t Know What to Say

You may have heard and read plenty of advice about what to say in certain situations–interviews, sales presentations, civic club speeches and more. Yet no course or coaching or books could have prepared us for the conversations we are having this year during Covid19. Because of your compassionate nature, you want to talk with friends who have lost their jobs, business owners who no longer have a business or families who have contracted the virus–and even suffered loss of life.

So what do you say when you don’t know what to say? Consider these four tips:

FIRST: Note that in many cases your presence means more than your words. When you meet with a distressed individual, the very fact you showed up says plenty–because many other acquaintances stay away, afraid they might say something wrong.

Fact is, the individual you want to comfort is not likely to remember what you said, yet they will remember the uplifting power of your presence. No need, then, for you to rehearse your words. Showing up translates to “I care.”

SECOND: Become a listener more than a talker
Your burdened friends, co-workers, relatives and clients are experiencing a strong need to express their feelings. It’s best, then, to replace statements with questions that help ventilate deep feelings. You might ask:

“Started a job search yet?”
“What warm memories of your father are you thinking about today?”
“How much longer will your son be in quarantine?”

THIRD: Offer specific, practical help
A natural trend when disaster strikes: vague offers: “Call me if you need anything.” “You know you can count on me.” “I’m with you all the way.”

Well-intended as those expressions are, they lack the specificity that relationships expert Kare Anderson has advocated in her speeches and books.
Examples of specific offers:

“While your car is in the shop because of the accident, call me when you need transportation.”

“I know how weary caregivers get. On Wednesday I can stay with your daughter while you go out for lunch and shopping.”

“I’ll be glad to review your resume, to see if there are ways to strengthen your job search.”

FOURTH: Check back within ten days
Frequently people with highly visible needs welcome dozens of neighbors and friends the first two or three days after the crisis becomes known. Then usually those well-wishers return to their normal activities.

You will excel as a supporter when you check back on the distressed people within a week or so. By then, the reality of their struggle will have become more overwhelming, more intense. Your returning to them will foster gratitude and inspiration.

I encourage you to keep these steps in mind, especially during what I call our “Twilight Zone” existence–known infamously as Covid19.

Now you know what to say–in those circumstances when previously you had no idea what to say.

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