How much power is there in words?

Finding the right words in difficult situations

The older we get, the more aptly the flippant statement is: the impacts are getting closer. Illnesses, job loss, divorce or the loss of loved ones do not stop at our circle of acquaintances. And that also presents us with a challenge. Because: As soon as these topics come up, we suddenly have no words. We sympathize and want to express that too. But how? When others let us share in their personal fate, even eloquent people struggle to find the right words. And then to be able to say anything at all, we take refuge in platitudes. What can we do to find the right words in difficult situations? We talked to Instahelp psychologist Isabelle Diwoky about it.

Can words drive the pain away?

In difficult situations words can build up, encourage, give consolation and strength - we know that. Why is it so difficult to find the right ones?

Isabelle Diwoky: There are events that are painful. Loss hurts. Saying goodbye to a loved one, for example, is terrible. How can you find the right words on it? What are correct words? What are these “right words” supposed to achieve? It is not possible to undo a loss with words. It is not possible to use words to dispel pain. It is not possible to use words to make the terrible situation better. So please don't make up your mind to come up with words that can accomplish this. They just don't exist, the words that "make everything right again" in such a situation- that's why it's so hard to find.

The pressure of expectation

How can we free ourselves from the expectation of having to find particularly helpful or profound words?

Isabelle Diwoky: The knowledge that in a bad situation no word can be so helpful or profound as it makes the situation forgotten, improves it, undoes it - that can be very relieving. That means: I don't have to shine particularly brilliantly towards the person who is suffering / grieving / in pain / ..., I don't have to find the secret magic words. In this phase of great suffering, alleged platitudes are sufficient, or silence out of concern is absolutely fine.

Is good advice a no-go?

How helpful is supposedly good advice? Do they still belong in the category of constructive words or are they out of place?

Isabelle Diwoky: Good advice such as “pull yourself together”, “it will be fine”, “life goes on” ... or the like are out of place if they are used with the intention of giving consolation in difficult, sad life situations. The other person has experienced something bad, a loss, is going through a difficult phase of life and is still in the middle of a life of loss - and that's okay! A job loss, a serious illness, a death, ... you can't put it away after a few days and then continue to live as before! Remember that.

There used to be the year of mourning after the loss of a spouse; a year of sadness, that was normal and okay. Consideration was given if the person wanted to step down, if their life did not go further in a short time than before. Grief after life-changing events and losses can last longer than a year! That was a good average, so to speak ...

With well-intentioned advice like the one mentioned above, the mourner gets the pressure that it is enough with mourning - it would be time to pull yourself together and get back to normal for the others. In other words, you ask to pretend that you are fine even though the inside looks completely different. If you want to signal to the other: I understand your grief, it was really bad what happened - then such advice has no place in communication. But if you speak words out of politeness and then please do not want to be bothered further with the feelings of the other person- then such "good advice" is the means of choice to quickly silence the other person.

Your problem, my problem

In return, when others tell us about their problems, we tend to put some of our own problems on the table. To signal to the other: You are not alone. How useful is that?

Isabelle Diwoky: Talking about your own problems when the other person starts to unpack - that can sometimes be quite appropriate and point out ways through the crisis. However, with a fresh loss that is simply painful, it is inappropriate to speak of your own old wounds. It is more helpful to give the other person space, to bring their own inner images onto the stage by talking, to work through their feelings, and that again and again and again, perhaps over a long period of time and on many different occasions.

I'm here for you…

Understanding listening without big words, how do you do that?

Isabelle Diwoky: Your own big words are not what constitutes an understanding of the other. Few of your own words, maybe also being able to endure the silence, the tears that come, the many emotions - that's showing understanding. Tears are signs of strong emotions, I can't talk away strong emotions from the outside - and I don't have to. Strong events evoke strong emotions, high waves of feeling. That's OK.

It is not my job to “take away” or “talk away” the feelings of the other person. What is helpful is: to endure it together. In silence, depending on the personal closeness to the person, also holding the hand, touching the shoulder with an understanding gesture that only shows "I am there, be as you are", or completely hugging and caressing. Away from the idea that everything must always be good and beautiful and happy, away from the idea that I always have to make everything happy - accept the other person in their pain, that gives the most strength. Then it says: you were there for me.

Photo credits: iStock.com/Antonio_Diaz