What to say when you don’t know what to say

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One of the most difficult situations we can find ourselves in is reacting
adequately when we hear about something bad that has happened to someone we know. Really bad news, like learning that the boss’s child has been diagnosed with a serious disease, a client is getting divorced or a colleague has had a miscarriage, can actually stun us in to silence. We don’t know what to say precisely, because we want to say exactly the right thing.

These Secretary Today guidelines and phrases will help you. They are simple, but effective.

1 Let the person talk, and listen to what he or she says. Don’t interrupt, but do show that you are listening by saying things like

  • Yes
  • Ah ah
  • I understand
  • Oh dear

2 Respond. Don’t avoid or ignore the topic. Show you have understood with an appropriate phrase, like n I’m so sorry.

  • That must be so difficult for you.

3 Keep the focus on the other person. Never say, "I know how you feel" unless you have been through the very same situation. Never be dismissive by saying something like, "Well, I had three miscarriages before my daughter was born." Pain is pain. It can’t be objectively measured on a sliding scale. Never tell them how they should feel, for example, "Well, just be glad this happened to you after your holidays and not before." Also, don’t say things like, "that is so terrible, I want to cry." It’s not about you!

4 Don’t be judgmental. This is not the time to say, "I told you so." We are all human, and accidents happen. Placing blame doesn’t make it better for anyone. Saying, "It may be for the best" doesn’t help either.

5 Acknowledge how important the situation is. Never focus on how you are affected by the situation, for instance, by saying "so you won’t be there to help with organising the meeting." Offer your help instead.

  • What can I do to help you out?

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miscarriage: Fehlgeburt
to stun: betäuben
precisely: gerade
guideline: Richtlinie
dismissive: herablassend, geringschätzig
sliding scale: Gleitskala
judgmental: wertend, urteilend
to place blame: Schuld zuweisen
a tough break: Pech