Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
A quiet night at the Smith house. Kathy in her corner, Tom in his corner. Tom is having a tough time and needs some support from Kathy. Kathy isn’t saying a word. And she could use some support, too.
No, it’s not a silent movie. Even if it sounds like one.
Kathy doesn’t know what to say to Tom, and her solution is to just be quiet. They both feel pretty alone.
One of the signs that you, or your partner, might be feeling helpless is when you don’t know what to say. Have you ever felt this way? If you have, you may have been afraid of saying the wrong thing. Or felt that when your partner is in need, you should be able to step in and make things better. But you don’t know how to do that, if that is even possible. So you stayed quiet.
The result? Shutting down and not saying anything at all. Maybe avoiding the other person until “things blow over.” Blaming them for making you feel uncomfortable. Or blaming yourself for not knowing what to do.
Here’s what to do—and say—when you don’t know what to say:
Don’t assume. It’s easy to make assumptions about why your partner isn’t talking. While silence can seem like avoidance and not caring, your partner may actually fear that he/she will say something hurtful. So keep in mind that silence can come from a place of caring and concern, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.
Let go of the need to fix. When your partner is not feeling well, or in emotional pain, it’s not your job to come to the rescue and make it all better. Not that you don’t want to. It’s just that you don’t have a magic wand. So take the pressure off yourself by reciting helplessness rule number one: We can’t fix other people. And if you’re the one in pain, you might want to remind your partner that you don’t expect to be fixed.
Start at first base. When you recognize what you can’t do, then you free yourself up to focus on what you can do. (A lot, by the way.)
Just say it. If you don’t know what to say, then how about just saying “I don’t know what to say.” That’s the truth, right? You might want to follow it up with something like, “I know this is hard for you. I wish I had the right words to make you feel better.” Or if you’re the one who needs support: “I don’t expect you to have any magic. I just need to know you’re here for me. That’s all.”
Now relax. By admitting you don’t know the right words, or making it okay for your partner to, you’ve cleared the air. You can communicate without expectations or demands, and without feeling guilty that you aren’t holding up your end.
Listen. One of the ways we avoid helplessness is by avoiding hearing things that make us feel helpless. So the helplessness gets perpetuated. On the other hand, being listened to can be healing, for both the person being listened to and the person doing the listening. Listening is one of the best ways to honor another person. So listen up!
Ask how you can help. Next time you don't know what to say or do, how about asking? (Or telling?) Open the door with: “I don’t know how to help you but I want to do whatever I can. Can you let me know how?” Or, “Here’s how you could help me, if you’re willing.”
You never thought “I don’t know what to say” could be such a great conversation starter, right? Give it a try at your house.