There are some moments when I just don’t know what to say. I want to share something meaningful – a helpful thought or a word of comfort. But, when I try to form sentences, my tongue gets tied and nothing sounds quite right.
I felt this way a few weeks ago after the horrific events of Charlottesville. The images I saw on the screen of the overt demonstration of racism and hate disturbed me to the core. It made me think of my friends who experience both overt and the more hidden systemic forms of racism every day. I wanted to say something meaningful, but I struggled with finding the right words to convey my feelings.
Not long before Charlottesville, I had another moment where I didn’t know what to say. A friend suddenly lost a child. As a fellow parent, I couldn’t imagine the type of pain they were experiencing. As I drove down to the hospital to see them, I wondered, “What on earth could I possibly say that would be meaningful?”
What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say
Perhaps you’ve felt similar. Grief, tragedy, disappointment, and struggle are unfortunately common experiences in this broken world. Have you ever wrestled with finding the right words when a friend, family member, or our culture is dealing with difficulty?
Leaders are called to move into difficult situations. Even more so, it’s what loving people do. We don’t run from brokenness. We press into it. The world needs more people to engage with hurt and those who are hurting. I know when I’m hurting, I need the thoughtful words and caring presence of good friends.
But, as we express our care and concern, we should care and be concerned about the way we engage. Sometimes we can do unintended damage. We probably know this from experience, where someone with the right heart said the wrong thing to us. Honestly, it makes it intimidating to say something at all.
So, what do you say when you don’t know what to say? Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
When we don’t know what to say, it’s easy to pull back. If you’re talkative like me, it is awkward when you don’t have the right words. You feel the silence and wonder if you’re messing up by not having anything to say. Sometimes the potential awkwardness leads us not to engage at all, which is a problem.
Don’t run from someone’s pain. Recognize it. Be present. I’ve found I don’t need to be quick with the right words, but I do need to be quick with my presence. In fact, sometimes it’s best to be slow with my words – my initial thoughts and words are often not going to be helpful. But, people will remember you were there. So, even when you don’t know what to say, show up.
Lean on the Words of Others
After Charlottesville, President Obama tweeted a quote from Nelson Mandela, who said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”
"Leaders are called to move into difficult situations. We don’t run from brokenness. We press into it."
His reference to Mandela became the most re-tweeted tweet of all time. In a moment where it was difficult to find the right words, he leaned on the words of someone whose words carried incredible meaning.
If we’re struggling to find the right words, it is a great idea to lean on those who have better words than us. Maybe they’ve experienced the type of pain a friend or a group of people in our culture is experiencing right now and can help us think through our own words.
Avoid Clichés and Comparisons
While it’s great to use the words of others, we need to be careful. Sometimes we can easily throw a common cliché or pat answer at someone else’s pain. Since I work in a church, I have seen countless times how someone has used a Bible verse out of context to try to “fix” someone. Personally, the Bible has been a source of incredible comfort to me. But, often that comfort comes over time and with careful reflection. If I’m hurting and someone throws a quick Bible reference to me to try and “fix” my problem, it isn’t comforting – it’s frustrating. Clichés might feel handy to those of us who aren’t hurting, but they often minimize the pain of someone who is going through hardship. We need to avoid quick statements.
It’s also problematic when we try to compare someone’s painful situation to something we’ve been through. Comforting someone isn’t a comparison game. We might think we’re helping, but if we’re not careful, we can again shift the focus to us and away from someone who needs us to listen.
Listen, Don’t Resolve
Listening actually does involve saying something. In fact, we can use our words to demonstrate that we are listening to those who are hurting and hearing what is going on in our culture. The easiest way to say something during difficulty is to reflect back what we’ve heard and recognized the feelings being expressed by those who are hurting.
As we listen, fight the urge to find quick resolutions. The reason why the situation is difficult is that there isn’t an easy solution. Listening is magnifying the voice of the person who is struggling. Let them know you hear their pain – and sit with them in the middle of it.
Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say in a broken world. But, let’s be the kind of leaders who resolve to enter into brokenness. Let’s speak up against hate, comfort those who hurt, and be present to help how we can.
By Eric Torrence