You want to be compassionate without philosophizing
When you see your friend or colleague at work, you hopefully get a warm smile, a friendly hello, and maybe a little chat about your favorite TV show that was on last night. But at times, as soon as you see him, you know something’s wrong. His shoulders are slumped, his gaze is distracted, and that smile is now a straight line. Maybe he just found out that he’s going to be laid off during the upcoming merger, or his husband has cancer, or the massive contract his team was about to win went to his competitor.
You want to say something helpful and supportive. But you don’t know what to say, so you can just rely on some old standbys, right?
Nope. Here are three things you may want to say but should skip:
1. “I know how you feel.”
You may be trying to be sympathetic, but you’re making what happened to your colleague about your experience, not theirs. You may have been in a similar situation, but what you went through may not be comparable to what he or she is going through. And even if it’s really relatable (you both had to go out on bedrest during your high-risk pregnancy at 24 weeks, for example), you still don’t know what she is going through. You may have felt scared but she feels angry. Don’t assume that her experience has anything to do with yours.
2. “Look on the bright side.”
Typically, we offer this bon mot because we’re uncomfortable that someone else is uncomfortable. We want them to feel better quickly for their own benefit, of course, but also so that we don’t have to experience the pain, frustration or disappointment by association. When we do this–even with the best of intentions–we’re denying our peer their right to feel their feelings.
Research shows that when we stop the flow of emotions because they’re too overwhelming, it leads to additional emotional and physiological stress. Like what? Like heart disease, intestinal problems, headaches, insomnia and autoimmune disorders. So stop trying to get your colleague not to experience the dark side, especially if that’s where he is right this minute. The bright side might come into his view at some point–but not because you told him so, and not a moment before he’s ready.
3. “Everything happens for a reason.”
Scientists, philosophers and clergy (among many others) have been arguing whether or not this is true for centuries. What makes you the final arbiter of whether someone’s setback, misfortune or tragedy serves a higher or future purpose? Furthermore, that may be what you believe, but it may not be aligned to what she believes. If she does hold that perspective to be true for her, she will come to it herself, on her own time. She won’t need you to remind her. And if she doesn’t believe that, you’re not helping her by trying to get her to think like you do – especially while she may be having trouble thinking clearly at all.
So what can you say, if now you’re feeling speechless? Try one of these:
1. “I’m sorry this is happening to you.”
Yes, it’s a tiny bit about you (“I’m sorry”) but it’s mostly expressing your awareness and compassion for the fact that your colleague is going through something upsetting. It also is morally neutral – it’s happening “to you” rather than “you brought this on yourself.”
2. “What do you need right now–and what don’t you need?”
This is a way to communicate that you’re willing to help. It is also a way to share that you don’t know and can’t assume what would qualify as help from her perspective. If you got laid off, you might want help updating your resume–but she might want someone to make some professional introductions. Or she might want everyone to STOP making so many professional introductions because she’s just not ready.
3. “I wish I knew exactly what to say, but I don’t. And I am here for you anyway.”
I learned this one from my teenage son Jacob. He can recognize when I am in a funk, but he doesn’t know exactly what to say when he sees it. Nevertheless, he is brave enough to approach me rather than ignore my mood, and admit that he may not have the right words, but he is present with me. And just being there is better than just being eloquent.
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel remarked,”Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.” So choose your words of healing wisely.