How to Talk with People in Desperate Situations

You spend months, sometimes years, building relationships with your business associates. Yet when life deals them a blow, it can still be hard to know what to say. Rather than saying nothing at all, follow these four guidelines and you’ll not only strengthen your relationship, but you’ll also comfort a friend.

Your business survives and thrives through communication that demonstrates your professional competence and your genuine care. Fortunately, you learn what to say for most standard conversations with co-workers, prospects, and clients, such as:

     Sales presentations

     Defusing disgruntled customers

     Job interviews

     Making a pitch to financial backers

     Disciplining an employee

     Requesting a referral

     Explaining a new benefits plan

For these and similar interactions, you learn the right language from your supervisors, role models, and others. These encounters don’t intimidate you.

However, some of the people we deal with professionally will experience traumatic events that threaten their well-being and happiness. Examples:

     Serious illness, for themselves or family

     House fires


     Car accidents

     Children breaking the law

     Death of a relative

     Job loss

     Placing a family member in a nursing home


     Home foreclosure

Wow–even reading this list of sad situations makes your stomach tighten. Because you feel awkward and unqualified to help, you might decide: “She’s having a tough time for sure. But unfortunately, I really wouldn’t know what to say. Maybe it’s just best for me to stay away. I’ll leave the comforting to clergy and counselors.”

I disagree. Every business expert I respect and emulate underscores what Terry Brock, President of Achievement Systems in Orlando, Florida calls the “R factor–Relationships.” Well, relationships are not very valuable if they’re valid only during good times. In fact, the real test of a relationship’s benefit comes when your associates suffer unexpected calamities.

So here are four tips on “what to say when you don’t know what to say.” They worked well for me during more than two decades in management. They still do now that I am an entrepreeur.

First: When you approach a person in trouble, realize that you may not have to say anything that’s creative and memorable. Sometimes, words may not even be necessary at all. Just your presence says enough. The fact that you show up conveys a powerful message itself. While others allow their timidity to keep them away from an uncomfortable setting, you have arrived with friendship and support.

Consider this: Chances are good that the person you visit may not remember your exact comments after you leave. More importantly, though, they will remember that you came to the hospital, funeral home, or residence.

Second: Show up primarily as a listener, not a talker. Usually a troubled person needs to talk about the situation, more than you might guess.

To illustrate, picture yourself at a funeral home during visitation with a woman whose husband has died. For the bereaved, good memories are suddenly more important than ever, because those memories prolong the life of the deceased. Encourage the flow of memories. Here’s how:

“I know you two traveled a lot. What were your favorite vacation spots?”

“I’ve never heard. . .tell me how you two met.”

“Your husband was known for his community service. What charitable cause meant the most to him?”

With prompters like those, you will generate thoughts of earlier, happier times. Listen attentively, and indicate occasionally that you want the person to keep talking: “I’m glad to know your children live nearby. Any grandchildren?”

Third: Offer practical, specific help. Yes, distressed people welcome “Call me if you need me” or “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.” Even so, you shift to a higher level when you move beyond generalities.

“While the shop is repairing your car, want to car pool with me?”

“With you spending so much time at the hospital, would you like the children to stay a couple of nights at my house?”

“What if I come to the nursing home one day next week, so you can go out for lunch?”

Fourth: Check back with your burdened friend within ten days. A traditional response pattern has dozens of people dropping by immediately for the first two or three days of a catastrophe, then disappearing because they have paid their respects. Loneliness, fear, and sorrow grow when silence starts. Your return presence will bring special meaning.

Reconsider these four suggestions again:

  • The words you choose are far less significant than the power of your presence.

  • Get your colleague to talk about the problem while you listen intently.

  • Offer specific, practical help.

  • Check back within ten days after the initial bad news.

Not really that difficult, is it? So avoid muttering, “I wouldn’t know what to say,” follow these guidelines, and you will enrich the relationships you have been building.

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