I often feel like I don’t know the right thing to say. I’ll be desperate to find the right words, but in a tough situation, I just don’t know what to say to make a person feel better. I often find myself switching the topic of the conversation -- so quickly that I've changed it before I realize what I've done.
I’ve been trying to come up with some tips to help me figure out what to say. This is what I've figured out so far:
1.) Try to identify the real problem. It’s quite common for people (like me) to be upset about something, but then to pretend that they’re really upset about something else. Often, when a person’s reaction seems disproporationate to the purported cause, you can figure out what the real problem is, if you try. Once, the Big Girl came crying to me and said, “Everyone pays more attention to the Little Girl than to me!” I had a rare moment of wisdom enough to bite back my first responses: “You know that’s not true,” or “Didn’t I just play 10 game of Blink with you?” Instead, I said, “No matter what, you know that you are our most precious, darling girl, and no one would ever forget about you, or think that someone else is more important than you.” That was what she needed to hear, and she skipped off.
You can’t make someone feel better if you’re not talking about the right topic, so taking the time to identify the real problem is a key step.
2.) Don’t assume that you know what’s going to happen next. A friend told me that it really upset him, during his separation, when people spoke about his relationship as if divorce were inevitable. Similarly, even positive predictions like “It’s all going to work out” or “You’ll be as good as new” or “Of course you’re going to get that job/get engaged/get into that program” often aren’t very reassuring.
3.) Find the right level of questions to ask. People really differ on what kind of conversations they like to have. Some people like to answer probing questions and to get into the details. Other people are just the opposite. So start with general and vague questions, like “How’s it going?” or “How are you doing?” and feel your way.
4.) Don’t react with judgment. When something bad happens to someone, the people around him or her often try to identify a “mistake” so that they can reassure themselves that they’re safe, because they would never have made that mistake. But saying things like, “Well, I always said you should stop smoking,” “I never trusted her,” “You should have diversified your investments,” or “You know, you never set any good limits” is NOT helpful.