Kinstler: What to do when words fail

Ethan Kinstler, Staff Columnist

Picture this: Your friend comes to you in tears, her 16-year-old family dog has just passed away, and she is heartbroken. What do you do? What do you say? You’ve had pets your whole life so you know how she is feeling, but that doesn’t make it any easier to console your friend. What do we do when words fail?

Being sympathetic is hard enough, but effectively communicating our sympathy to others is an all but Herculean task. Different from normal communication scripts, sympathy requires us to be able to see a situation from someone else’s point of view, while, at the same time, remaining in the present moment to provide support. So how do we do it?

Well, you’ll want to remember that when someone comes to you to rant about a bad day, a family crisis or some other negative situation, they are not necessarily asking you to fix their problem.

Start simple––acknowledge their grief or hardship. Begin with “I’m so sorry for your loss” (or another relevant phrase like “I’m sorry you’re dealing with that”), and then stop, wait and listen to how they respond. Ask them how you can best support them. Let them know you are here for them if they need anything, and then truly be there if and when they need you. 

What we should not do when trying to show sympathy is encourage the person to see things from a different perspective. Quips like “it’ll get better” or “time heals all wounds,” while thoughtful in theory, never really help anyone. When we try and encourage a grieving person to “feel better,” we are inadvertently invalidating how they are feeling right now, which can leave them feeling unsupported. Great! Now your friend is both crying and she’s mad at you! So don’t try to encourage them, just listen and support them.

The next thing we should avoid doing is telling your friend about times when you found yourself in a similar situation and how you dealt with it. Everyone grieves differently so the fact that when your hamster Sparky died, you had a funeral in your backyard while your little brother played taps on his trumpet is largely irrelevant right now—sorry. Ultimately, mentioning your own tales of woe only demeans the person’s current suffering. Offer your heartfelt sympathy and nothing more, and keep the focus on the person’s current situation rather than yourself.

In a similar vein, this idea of keeping our sentiments “short and sweet” should be applied to our apologies as well. Like sympathy, apologies are tricky because they, too, require us to be able to see our actions from someone else’s perspective.

So what do we do? Well, again, you’re gonna want to start with an “I’m sorry…” and then, like when giving condolences, stop. Typically, people can successfully complete this first step of saying “I’m sorry” but then we immediately put our feet in our mouths by saying too much. Too often we feel the need to follow up our apology with a justification or equivocation: “I’m sorry but…” or “I’m sorry if…”—stop! Trying to justify our behavior shifts the focus from the other person and their needs to our own needs in trying to assuage our guilt. Remember, you’re focusing on someone else, therefore, why you did something is irrelevant––if the person wants a reason, they will ask.

Similarly, adding the cursed “…if” as in “I’m sorry if I made you feel…” immediately let’s the person know that we don’t know exactly why we are apologizing and therefore don’t really care that we hurt the other person—only that we feel guilty. Of course, this is usually not accurate nor the message we want to communicate, so what should we do instead?

Well, try an “I’m sorry for…” and then layout exactly why you’re apologizing and the instance it happened. For example, “I’m sorry for interrupting when we got lunch yesterday.” Saying “I’m sorry for…” let’s the other person know that you’ve actually put thought into the situation, you recognize exactly what it is you’ve done wrong and you are taking accountability for the behavior.

In essence, only apologize because you’ve come to the conclusion that an apology is warranted. If, after careful thought, you don’t feel your behavior was inappropriate, don’t apologize. When we apologize too early, or our intention is to save-face rather than actually make amends, we fall into these traps of insincerity and can make the conflict worse.

Of course, just because you have successfully completed these steps does not mean the person will forgive you or that you are off the hook. An apology that is not accompanied by an actual behavioral change is performative. It is not enough to simply tell the person that you are sorry—you need to show the person that you are sorry too by taking steps to ensure you do not repeat incidences of bad behavior. Making these amends can start with a simple conversation following your apology during which you both can reaffirm the boundaries of your relationship. 

If the time is right, and the person asks, this is when you can have a discussion as to how the situation led to you acting the way you did. Still, this should not be a justification of your behavior, but rather a simple explanation of exactly how you were feeling in the moment and why. A good way to ensure that you are explaining rather than justifying is to keep in mind that you are trying to make the other person understand your feelings, rather than trying to excuse a behavior.

An apology is a promise that you will try to not repeat a behavior. Let that be the driving impetus behind your apology—a motivation to show the other person that you hear them, you understand and you will do better. Along these lines, like when expressing sympathy, let your apology be a give-and-take, let the other person tell you what they need from you in order to heal. 

Finally, be fair to yourself and take responsibility, but do not sell yourself short. If you also feel slighted, it’s ok to make that known to the other person and express your own grievances once you have successfully apologized for your part in the conflict and deescalated the situation; apologizing does not mean you’re admitting the entire conflict was your fault. Take responsibility for your actions, not necessarily the entire situation.