3 Ways to Screw Up a Conversation

We’ve probably been on both sides of the conversation. Perhaps we’ve been the one who’s taken the risky step of opening up with a vulnerable topic, only to have someone squelch our spirits with a quick or trite response. Or maybe we’ve actually been the one to offer the nonchalant, unhelpful response. And after the response was out of your mouth you wish you could grab it back. Or even worse, maybe it flew out of your mouth and you weren’t even aware. I know I’ve been in all of these positions.

The Bible makes it really clear that our compassion towards people matters. The apostle Paul, for example, thanks the Philippians for their compassion toward him, through their financial gifts and in their sending Epaphroditus to visit him, to spend time with him and talk. That compassion cheered Paul up and helped him endure imprisonment.

There are lots of ways we show compassion, and our words are part of that. So we should take the weight of words seriously. Proverbs 13:3 tells us, “Those who guard their lips preserve their lives, but those who speak rashly will come to ruin.” If we want to show compassion, then it makes it sense that we reflect on what we might be tempted to say to people, and how those words could prove unhelpful, or even hurtful.

Let’s look at some phrases that probably all of us have said at some point and see how they could be unhelpful and then offer a potential more helpful response. For purposes of modeling how these phrases could look, I am going to use the scenario of someone sharing with you that they just had a miscarriage.

  1. At least . . .

Unhelpful: I’m sorry. At least you already have one kid.  At least you are only 32.

More Helpful: I’m sorry. That is really hard. Thanks for telling me. Do you want to process more about it?

Sometimes a response may be factually true, but emotionally unhelpful. The emotions this person is feeling are real and to use the phrase ‘at least’ may make them feel like they shouldn’t have told you, or that the feelings they are experiencing are a sign of weakness and that they should just get over it. Being empathetic does not involve rationalizing. This video on empathy from Brené Brown illustrates this point really well.

  1. I know exactly how you feel . . .

Unhelpful: I’m sorry. I know exactly how you feel. I’ve had a miscarriage too.

More Helpful: I don’t know exactly how you feel, but I hurt with you.

Similar to the ‘at least’ comment, this comment doesn’t show empathy. Instead it moves the attention away from the hurting individual to yourself. It’s so easy for us to be guilty of this. We have a hard time hearing and receiving someone else’s pain, so we pivot to our own life. I wonder sometimes if we’re nervous and don’t know what to say, so we make it about us. Again, you may have had a miscarriage – that may be true – but this is not about you. To say you know exactly how someone feels is presumptuous and almost always false. Let the person process and grieve in their own way, not in the way you did.

  1. Everything will turn out okay.

Unhelpful: I’m sorry. I am sure this was just a fluke. I’m sure you’ll get pregnant again soon.

More Helpful: I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say. It is so hard when you don’t know what the future holds but you just feel the weight of the present. Thanks for sharing this with me.

I think we want to give this advice because we want it to be true. Yet, we must remember when helping our friends that God may not have the same plan for their life as what you or they would want, and on a micro-level this comment takes on the role of God. We don’t know what the future holds this side of heaven so to give your friend false hope is the furthest thing from being a good friend.

This list is neither comprehensive nor fool-proof. And not every one of these phrases would be offensive to all people. Plus, we don’t want to be so aware of what not to say that we become paralyzed and think that we’re just going to screw up, so better not to say anything. Yet, by and large, I think these phrases, and certainly what they insinuate, should be avoided. For sure the best way to be empathetic is to listen well and tailor your response to the individual and where they are – and this starts with an awareness of the importance of our speech in the even more important role of being a compassionate friend.

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