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Listen Up: What to Say to Hurting People

My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.
-James 1:19

I grew up not knowing how to listen.  As I read Robbie Miller Kaplan's book, "How to Say it When You Don't Know What to Say", I laughed very hard every time I read the lists of what not to say, because these are exactly what I learned, when I was young.  Some of them are just wrong and some are well meaning, but fall short.

A long time ago, I had a desire to be a better friend and a better listener.  So, I began a journey to learn.  The first book I picked up was The Friendship Factor.  I don't remember anything from that book, except that something inside me wanted to be a better friend and a better listener.

A couple months ago, I picked up this book and it is filled with practical wisdom I agree with and want to take note of.

As are all my posts, this is for me, to remember.  And this is for people, like me, who want to be better and do better

The format here is first, what not to say; and then the better way to listen and what to say.  I cover my notes on 11 or 12 topics, with general listening skills at the end.  In her book, Robbie covers about 20 topics.

My notes from:
How To Say It When You Don't Know What To Say, by Robbie Miller Kaplan


Do not say this to someone who is going through disappointment:
  • It could be worse.
  • It is for the best.
  • You will get over it.
  • This is nothing in the scheme of things: not a big deal.
Instead, do or say these things:
  • Give them a hug.
  • Send them an encouraging note.
  • Acknowledge how hard they worked.
  • Tell them you love them.
  • Let them know that their efforts and focus were not in vain.
  • "I'm proud of you!"
  • "Great job!"
  • "I'm sorry this didn't work out for you."
  • "You inspire me!"


Do not say this to someone who has to put their loved one in long term care:
  • He/she does not even know you are there.
  • I would not want to end up like that.
  • What a burden for you.
Instead, say these things:
  • "I think you are doing a great job."
  • "I would love to see you both."
  • "What can I do to help?"
  • "Would you like some company?"
Pro tip:
  • Offer to install a bird feeder or bird bath at a window accessible to the cared for and caregiver. 


Do not say these things to someone with financial troubles:
  • How could you have let this happen?
  • I hope you enjoyed it while it lasted.
  • I told you this would happen.
Instead, say these things:
  • I am sorry this is happening.
  • This must be very difficult for you.
And do these things:
  • Invite them over for a home-cooked meal.
  • Continue to socialize, but in low-cost activities.
  • Give them a gift card
Pro-tip:
  • Instead of going out to lunch, have them over for lunch or offer to prepare and take them on a picnic.


Do not say these things to someone who is out of work:
  • Did you find a job yet?
  • Don't be lazy.
  • I'm sure you'll find something quick.
  • Take what you can get and don't be too choosy.
Instead, say these things:
  • Explore all your options.
  • How are you doing?
  • I love you and I'll help you in any way I can.
  • I'm sorry this happened.


Do not say this to someone going through divorce:
  • You always seemed so happy, you were such a great couple.
  • Have you tried praying? (Did you know God hates divorce?)
  • I never liked _______ anyway.
Instead, say this:
  • You are not a failure.
  • I am here for you in any way you need me.
  • How can I help you?
  • I'm sorry this happened.
  • It's ok to be angry.
  • I love you and will support you through this.
  • You are doing great.


Do not say this to someone who is separated.
  • Didn't you see it coming?
  • Drop him/her.  Good riddance.
  • Have you been to counseling?
  • I predicted this.
  • I never liked _____.
  • You don't deserve this.
Instead, say this:
  • How are you doing?
  • I care about you.
  • I miss you.
  • I am here for you, here to talk if you want to.
  • It's ok to feel sad.
  • Let's get together on _____.
  • I really don't know how you feel.
  • You can count on me.
  • Take all the time you need.


Do not say these things to a physically handicapped person:
  • Do you mind telling me what happened?
  • How long have you been like this?
  • It must be tough.
  • It's unfortunate that you have that.
Instead, say this:
  • How can I be most helpful?
  • Please let me know what would make you most comfortable.
  • What do I need to know about to accommodate your wheelchair?
Pro tip:
  • Before you say anything to a person with a disability, ask yourself if this is appropriate commentary for an able-bodied person.  If you would say the same thing to an able-bodied person, then it is probably appropriate to say to a person with a disability.


Do not say these things to someone with a special needs child:
  • "God will only give you what you can handle."
  • "What kind of life will he/she have?"
  • "When will he/she be normal?"
  • Do not second-guess their parenting skills with comments.
Instead, say this:
  • We love you all.
  • This must be really rough for you.
  • Give yourself some time.
  • You are in my heart and prayers.
  • This is really hard.
  • It's ok to hope for more.


What not to say to adoptive parents:
  • Are they real sisters/brothers?
  • Aren't you nice for doing that.
  • Can't you have children of your own?
  • Do your kids know?
  • How could their real mother give them away?
  • How much did it cost?
Instead, say this:
  • Congratulations!
  • I am so happy for you!
  • How exciting!
  • What can I do to help?
  • What lucky parents to have such a wonderful child!
  • What wonderful news!
Pro tips:
  • Do approach the family with kindness.  Chill on the questions.
  • Send flowers on the day that they receive the child.
  • Refer to the child as their daughter or son (not "adopted").
  • Insensitive attention or questions can be hurtful.
  • Adoption is another way of becoming a family, nothing less.
  • Anticipate anxiety, fear, joy, nervousness, uncertainty, and lots of vulnerability.


Don't say these things to someone struggling with infertility:
  • All I have to do is look at my husband.
  • Go away for a romantic weekend.
  • Don't try too hard.
  • Relax.
  • Who's fault is it?
Instead, say this:
  • Go ahead and cry; I'll stay with you.
  • It must be hard to go through this.
  • There is always hope.
  • What can I do to help you?
  • You can talk to me; I care.
Pro tips:
  • Offer to take them to doctor appointments.
  • Bring them dinner on evenings after medical procedures.


Do not say this to someone who has had a miscarriage, lost their baby, or young child:
  • You can get pregnant again.
  • It wasn't meant to be.
  • There was probably something wrong with the baby.
  • Don't be so sad, God doesn't give you more than you can handle.
  • It's a blessing in disguise.
  • There is a reason for everything.
  • Don't you wish it was you instead?
  • He's/She's in heaven.
  • It was God's will.
  • It could be worse.
Instead, do and say these things:
  • If you are close to them, step in and do the basic necessities for them to keep their household going.
  • Offer to make phone calls.
  • Convey compassion.
  • Be careful about sharing news about your child.
  • If you are close, offer to help them clean the child's room.
  • Invite them to holiday celebrations.
  • Offer to accompany them to the cemetery. 
  • Send them simple "thinking of you" cards and remember them and their child around to time of the birthday and death anniversary.
  • Say, "I am so sorry this happened."
  • Tell them that you don't know how they are feeling, but want to be there for them.
  • Say, "I'm sad for you."
  • Tell them to take their time and they can do things when they are ready.
  • Say, "we/I share your sorrow."
  • You can drop by with a casserole, but don't visit without an invitation.
  • Say, "I can't imagine how sad you must feel."
  • Ask, "what is your baby's name?"
  • Ask, "what can I do to help you?"
  • Say, "this was not your fault."
  • (If true) Share, "I have had a miscarriage/lost a child too; if you ever want to talk, let me know."


Do not say these things to someone who has had a suicide:
  • How are you feeling?
  • How did they do it?
  • It was such a selfish act.
  • It was God's will.
  • Time will heal this.
Instead, say and do these things:
  • "I am not here to judge."
  • "I am not going to pretend I know how you feel."
  • "I am not going to tell you how to respond."
  • "I don't have answers, but I am here to help in any way you'd like."
  • "If you would like some company, I am here for you (available)."
  • "It's good to see you."
  • Listen and say nothing.  No one expects you to have all the answers.
  • Keep in touch.  Suicide grief is especially isolating.
  • Suggest sharing a walk once or twice a week.  Do the work of coming over or picking them up.  Coax, but don't force.
  • Thoughtfulness lightens the sadness


Things not to say to someone in bereavement:
  • Death is part of life.
  • Give me a call if you need anything.
  • He/she is in a better place.
  • He/she led a full life.
  • I know/understand how you feel.
  • If there is anything I can do, just let me know.
  • Was it expected?
  • Were they ill?
  • It was God's will.
Instead, say and do these things:
  • Say, "I am glad to see you".
  • Say, "I am sorry for your loss".
  • Say, "I think of or am praying for you often."
  • Do their grocery shopping for them.
  • Tell them that you miss ____ very much.
  • Thank them for sharing their feelings when they do.
  • Acknowledge that this is difficult.
  • Ask, "what can I do for you?" (more than once).
  • Offer to come over and and make a list with them of what needs to be done.
Pro tips:
  • Think of concrete, specific ways to help this person (going places with them or for them, doing things, talking to people, running errands, child care, car pools, dishes, laundry, and chores).


Do not do these things, say these things when someone shares with you:
  • Don't assume you know what they think or feel before they share.
  • Don't look away from someone sharing with you.
  • Don't cross your arms and legs.
  • Don't roll your eyes.
  • Don't nervously play with your fingers, tapping, scratching.
  • Don't interrupt.
  • Don't take it personally if they get angry in telling their story.
  • Don't yawn.
  • Don't constantly shake your head (it can be annoying).
  • Don't rush them.
  • Don't ask questions (it's invasive and controlling).
  • Don't cut someone off before they have finished.
  • Don't break in and tell your own story that their story reminded you of.
  • Don't tell other people's stories.
  • Don't try to solve people's problems (fix them).
  • Don't offer advice (sharing is not an invitation for your advice!).
Instead, listen this way:
  • Choose a quiet, comfortable, and private setting (if possible).
  • Look at the person, tilting your face toward them (you're not Freud).
  • Make eye contact.
  • Be aware of body language, mirroring their's (not copy-miming).
  • Restate words and encapsulated messages, when appropriate.
  • Have an open posture.
  • Be patient, warm, and calm.
  • Disregard your own needs.
  • Allow the other's feelings to unfold into their own words.
  • Learn to read their non-verbal signals and reciprocate.
  • Do not interrupt and make it a tit for tat conversation.
  • Just listen, don't think of your response.
  • Let them ramble and not make sense.
  • Ask open-ended questions, one at a time.
  • If they cry or are at a loss for words, just listen; assuring them that they can share later, if desired.
Pro tips:
  • When the conversation is finished, tell them you are glad for it and would be happy to talk some more soon.
  • Turn off your phone (not on vibrate, but off and out of the way)!!
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All of the above are notes (my words occasionally) from:

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