Next-level sympathy scripts
April 7, 2019 7:55 AM   Subscribe

A recent AskMe highlighted the inappropriateness of meeting someone's bad news/ bid for sympathy with a "look-on-the-bright-side" response. Beyond the classic "That sounds terrible/ I'm so sorry", what else is there that's safe to say in these situations?

I was aware that brightsiding is generally a no-no, so I try to stick to responses that safely affirm this is awful/ express generic sympathy. Sometimes, though, I end up in conversations that go like this:

A: Oh hey, [sad thing] happened to me!

B: Oh A, that sounds awful. I'm so sorry.

A: Yes, in fact [details details details]

B: That sounds terrible. I'm so sorry you're going through this.

A: Yeah, it's been pretty hard, because [details details]

B: Well, I'm so sorry. That sounds terrible.

A: Yes, and actually...

By the third or fourth round, "I'm sorry/ that's awful" starts to sound awkward and insincere, like a form letter, but I literally have nothing else to say. (This is exacerbated in the occasional situations where I not only have nothing else to say, but also really need to find a compassionate way to end the conversation so I can attend to some urgent other thing.)

Graceful conversationalists of Metafilter, what are some additional scripts that you've used successfully in these situations, beyond "well, on the bright side..."?
posted by Bardolph to Human Relations (31 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Often the biggest gift you can give in situations like that is just to listen. Most people need to vent their stress and pain and it's more important that you're there to hear than what you say in response.

But you can also do things like ask if there's anything you can do to help.

Pushing off the topic can be difficult, sometimes you just have to go with, "I'm really sorry, I need to go," and physically disengage.
posted by Candleman at 8:03 AM on April 7, 2019 [7 favorites]

Just ducking in to clarify: I'm specifically looking for suggestions as to what responses B could make at the points marked [pause] in the conversation above.
posted by Bardolph at 8:43 AM on April 7, 2019

I'm infamous for responding to my friend's diagnosis of MS with "that is really shitty" and later my friend told me that was what she needed to hear as it was an honest reaction and the truth. I think if it is a close friend I would go with what is in your heart.

I have chronic illnesses and a real shitty past so have been on the end of some well less than ideal responses but mostly when sharing with people I appreciate the responses that reflect back the reality of the situation. So dropping words like "sounds" and just saying "that is terrible".. the "sounds" can come off as disbelief. Most of the time I just want to say out loud what is happening to someone else.

Also saying out loud "what can I do to help" along with just listening.. so "what can I do to help or do you need to just vent" something like that.
posted by kanata at 8:50 AM on April 7, 2019 [14 favorites]

If you're willing to keep listening/engaging in the conversation, asking a related question can be used to indicate that you're listening supportively and that it's ok for them to keep talking. This is hard because ideally you base it off of what they just said, so you have to come up with it on the spot.

That said, with people I'm close to, I'll sometimes just ask "Do you have feelings about that?" or "What's the hoped-for outcome, at this point?" I admit that they're not great questions, but they (hopefully) at least serve the purpose of letting the person know that I'm actively listening, and they're allowed to hold the conversational ball a while longer.
posted by mishafletch at 8:54 AM on April 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

Seconding "what can I do to help" (not, "is there anything I can do" because that requires a yes/no where "what can I do" is more likely to prompt something specific). Or even, "Do you need help doing X" (walking your dog, getting your groceries, cleaning your house, providing transportation somewhere, bake you some cookies, etc.).
posted by beagle at 8:57 AM on April 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

Yeah, you do want to avoid that "bright side" or "well, at least ..." comment, as that response tends to invalidate the very real feelings that your conversationalist is reporting.

IME, listening, questioning and parroting can be the ticket. Examples:

A: Oh hey, [sad thing] happened to me!

B: Oh A, that's awful. I'm so sorry.

A: Yes, in fact [details details details]

B: That stinks. What do you think you'll do next?

A: I don't know, it's just been pretty hard, because [details details]

B: I'm so sorry. How are you managing [details]?

A: Actually, I can't really do anything because [details]?

B: I see ... but you need to take care of yourself in the meantime. What can I do to help? Can I help you with [details]?

A gets to rant and unload, while you gently guide them toward some action or resolution.
posted by peakcomm at 9:00 AM on April 7, 2019 [49 favorites]

Jessamyn offered something similar to this and I don’t remember the wording but when I was going through a really tough time — crappy marriage, lousy job, difficult kid, all at once — I (partially) trained my mom to say “that’s bullshit, and I’m so sorry.” It really helped me to hear her desire to comfort me that way, rather than AHEM sympathy about “yes your kid/husband/boss certainly is a jerk and let me elaborate...” which was not helpful.

A second helping thing to say although it is more advanced—good for many kinds of grief although you run the risk of minimizing a loss so proceed with caution is “you won’t always feel this way.” Again, only good for feelings (I feel like shit cause I got fired) not situations (I’m broke cause I just got fired.)
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 9:06 AM on April 7, 2019 [1 favorite]


--"You must have been so [negative emotion]."

--"Thanks for telling me this, I wish it weren't happening."

--"I had no idea; you have been dealing with a lot"

If they have to do something active to deal with it, even if that means just putting up with something:

--"Wow, sounds like you are being really [positive characterization of their behavior: tough, smart, kind, patient] given how much you have to deal with."

If they have to make a decision and are agonizing over it a bit:

--"That sounds like a tough choice. I think you're right to [however they're approaching it---research, taking time, etc.]"

If they already made a big decision:

--"I think you made the right choice there, although it couldn't have been easy."

If they are dealing with difficult family:

--"They're not making it easy for you, are they."

How to leave

--"I have to leave in a minute, but please do let me know if you want to talk more. I'm sorry you're going through this" [They'll talk a little bit more] "Okay, hang in there, I'm gonna run but we'll talk again soon" [then you follow up with a text or similar]
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:07 AM on April 7, 2019 [36 favorites]

Another tool for your toolbox can be to try to reflect back or restate what you think you heard from the person:

A: Yeah, it's been pretty hard, because [details details]

B: So because [details details] you're having a really tough time.

I find I appreciate this when I'm venting, because it does show the person is listening, and if they're repeating back (in their own words or mine) the things that I consider the important parts, it shows me they are "getting" what I'm saying.
posted by DingoMutt at 9:09 AM on April 7, 2019 [6 favorites]

The key to leaving is to give a warning to help them wind down and adjust. If you know you need to leave right away the first thing out of your mouth should be something like "I have to run in a minute but I really want to hear about this, so I'll get in touch soon."
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:09 AM on April 7, 2019 [4 favorites]

In my opinion it's not really about what you say, more about the quality of your attention and sympathy usually. So a "oh man, that's rough" or even a nod, delivered from an authentic place of attention and sympathy, can be just as good as anything else if you're feeling like a broken record.

The "next level" includes things like naming feelings, having insight into the situation, and validating their feelings and decisions. But it's a little risky because you can guess wrong. And some of these things are a little deeper than your typical 5-minute work hallway chat. But in that context, you could try things like "that sounds frustrating" or even "I would feel so frustrated." Or "it sounds hard to know what to do" or "I'd imagine it's pretty overwhelming to try to juggle all those details." Ifdssn9 above gives some examples of validating. This can be combined with matching their tone (which often happens naturally if you're really tuning in instead of just trying to use the right words), so if they're talking about being done wrong, there's also "oh yeah, of course, anyone would feel angry about that!" Or "I can't believe they're treating you that way!"
posted by salvia at 9:24 AM on April 7, 2019 [10 favorites]

Not directly mentioned is “Is [Detail X] bothering you most/the worst bit?”, which gives them the chance to go into more detail and break down the problem a bit for themselves.
posted by ambrosen at 9:41 AM on April 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Building a little on salvia's point, you can try all these things and still end up angering or offending the person. Sometimes I think we like to pretend that there is one obvious socially correct thing to do that you can easily divine from circumstances and...there just isn't. Especially when you're dealing with people in pain. You just have to do your best.
posted by praemunire at 9:42 AM on April 7, 2019 [9 favorites]

It depends so much on the situation and your relationship with the person talking and any knowledge you have of their situation specifically or in general.

Right now a close friend is dealing with a very difficult situation and in conversations with her I ask questions, express opinions and only very occasionally offer suggestions. But that's all based on a series of communication signals and our history as friends and their emotional history in any given convo.

So when their outrage is high those convos might look like:
A: So this is happening
B: Oh my god
A: Details
B: What the everloving hell??? After x happened!
A: That's what I said!!!
B: So does this mean Q?
A: I don't know yet and that's what's even crazier ...

Or when they are sad and overwhelmed:
A: New info
B: Oh wow, I'm sorry
A: details
B: ohhh
A: details
B: [silence]
A: details

That's a very close friend who is incredibly open, and despite what's going on the conversations are very natural. In a situation where I'm not part of the inner support circle, or the friend is less emotionally open, it looks different.

In general I think it never hurts to ask questions to understand the situation: How old was the recently-deceased loved one, how long have they known it was cancer, will they have to travel to the funeral, do they need help finding an attorney, doctor, new job, place to stay; how are their family members coping, what do they plan to do, etc. Obviously not all the questions at once or in every situation, but when asked with sympathy and sensitivity questions can help show that you care about understanding what they are dealing with and are willing to help.
posted by bunderful at 9:46 AM on April 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

I would actually caution against the use of "what can I do to help?". That puts the onus on the person in crisis to figure out what you can do. My work with survivors of sexual assault suggests there's a split in terms of whether people find that helpful or off-putting. When people need to be listened to, responding in that way suggests that you don't want to listen anymore and instead want to go to a problem-solving mode. You could say, "I'm happy to listen as long as you want, and I also want you to know that if there's anything I can do to help all you need to do is ask." That clarifies that you're still on board for listening AND that you're on board for helping at some later date.

I do think it's okay to rotate through "that sounds so frustrating/hard/sad," "how awful," "I'm so sorry," and related statements that basically just encourage the person to keep talking. You can also ask questions about the situation that have the purpose of keeping them talking, rather than satisfying your own curiosity. For example, if people tell you they don't know why [they're so upset/they reacted to a situation like they did/etc] that's a good cue to ask, "why do you think you [are so upset/reacted like you did/etc]? "What happened next?," "How do you feel about that?," or "What are you thinking about the situation?" are also good.

Probably the best skill you can use is reflection as mentioned above. The simplest way to do this is to summarize back to them what they've said to you. The advanced level validates their perspective and/or notes the emotion. It's basically verbally communicating that you see their thoughts, emotions, and/or behaviors as valid- that you can put yourself in their shoes. For example:
"I can see why you'd feel [emotion word] because of [something that summarizes their perspective on the situation]"
"Wow, it makes total sense why you'd make X decision because of Y"
"Man, thinking that [something that summarizes their anxious/worried thoughts] would be really hard"

It's super important to let people know when you have to go for other reasons, so you don't burn out and so they don't think you just don't care. If you're close to them and genuinely are okay with hearing more, internet fraud detective squad's response would be great. I would probably then make sure to check back in with them or schedule a time to talk further. If it isn't really someone you're close to, I wouldn't promise to follow up. You can say, "hey, I really have to run, but thank you so much for sharing this with me- I'm so sorry you're going through this and I really hope things get better for you."
posted by quiet coyote at 9:49 AM on April 7, 2019 [6 favorites]

The hard thing to face here is that there is no safe answer. Different people in different situations have different needs, and there is nothing that's generic enough to meet all of them. For some people, what they need really is brightsiding - there's been times when I've needed it! Other people hate it and it makes them feel worse. Every possible response is like that.

This doesn't mean give up, it means that as difficult as it is, if you want to get good at comforting people at rough times the skill you have to cultivate is listening closely and being attentive to what they need even if it's not what you initially assumed someone in that situation would need, rather than finding a script that always works for everyone. There is no script like that.
posted by waffleriot at 9:53 AM on April 7, 2019 [21 favorites]

Salvia's comment about turning in vs trying to use the right words is key. Trying to be fully present, giving them my full attention, and not worrying too much about the words - while at the same time being careful about my words? - seems to work best for me.

On preview: what Waffleriot said.
posted by bunderful at 10:02 AM on April 7, 2019

This video on the concept of "acknowledgment" might be helpful to you. Acknowledgment here is basically just a way of being in response to what people are telling you--being willing to witness their pain--that makes it much harder to say the wrong thing, even though the details of the "right" thing to say will vary across people, relationships, and the situation being discussed.
posted by quiet coyote at 10:07 AM on April 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Seconding waffleriot! I don't think there is a safe "script" because people have different needs and different situations.

The best thing to do if you're not sure what kind of response they would want is to listen attentively, and reflect back what the person is saying, and perhaps reflecting their feelings in words if you feel you can.

I agree that there are some situations where people want the "look on the bright side" perspective- I know I do sometimes. obviously not during grief and loss- but sometimes I get mired in negativity over relatively minor things, and I do appreciate a more positive perspective. All that is to say, that providing positivity isn't always the wrong choice for every person and every situation.

But, safest is to listen and reflect back.
posted by bearette at 10:10 AM on April 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I think reflecting’s good. Literally repeat a point from the [details], sort of as if you’re confirming your understanding.
posted by Segundus at 10:40 AM on April 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think the best way to talk to people in these situations is not to have something interesting or different to respond with.
posted by rhizome at 10:56 AM on April 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have been in this situation multiple times in the last year. The only thing that you can do is express sympathy and then just listen. That is what they need. Sometimes just nodding or nonverbal stuff.....whatever feels natural

The key is LISTENING!
posted by kbbbo at 11:03 AM on April 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

When bad things have happened to me, I remember the people who were there, who listened, hugged, called to see how I was doing. I don't remember a word they said.
posted by theora55 at 11:07 AM on April 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

The NYS Grief Counseling Guide - A Field Manual (2004) may be helpful to review, e.g:
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has taught us that we must see the bereaved people we serve and counsel as our teachers. We need to allow them to teach us what their experience is, rather than constructing some set of goals and expectations that we expect them to meet and achieve. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.” We are not the experts on anyone’s grief. As bereavement workers we must meet the grieving without expectations about what should happen or what they should be feeling. There are no experts in this work.

John Welshons, in his fine book entitled Awakening from Grief, states:
“So there is no way to apply systems, rules or emotional road maps. Our job is to be a presence, rather than a savior. A companion, rather than a leader. A friend, rather than a teacher.” (p 159)
The Companioning Model of Bereavement caregiving developed by Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt is one in which we as bereavement caregivers help people to integrate life’s losses by being present to them and observing them—companioning. He tells us that observance comes to us from ritual. It means not only “to watch out for,” but “to keep and honor, to bear witness.” Wolfelt elaborates on the companioning idea:

* Companioning is about honoring the spirit; it is not about focusing on the intellect.
* Companioning is about curiosity; it is not about expertise.
* Companioning is about learning from others; it is not about teaching them.
* Companioning is about walking alongside; it is not about leading.
* Companioning is about being still; it is not about frantic movement forward.
* Companioning is about discovering the gifts of sacred silence; it is not about filling every painful moment with words.
* Companioning is about listening with the heart; it is not about analyzing with the head.
* Companioning is about bearing witness to the struggles of others; it is not about directing those struggles.
* Companioning is about being present to another person’s pain; it is not about taking away the pain
* Companioning is about respecting disorder and confusion; it is not about imposing order and logic.
* Companioning is about going to the wilderness of the soul with another human being; it is not about thinking you are responsible for finding the way out. (Part 3-The Forum. ADEC. N/D.98) [...]

The heart of grief counseling, according to Dr. Ken Doka, writer and lecturer in grief and loss, is validation. Grieving individuals need reassurance that what they are experiencing is normal. Counselors can help people understand and identify the ways they are reacting. Some people grieve through their expression of feelings. Others grieve through problem-solving, thinking, and activities. Doka, in a recent presentation (2002), maintains that there are many different ways in which individuals experience, express and adapt to loss.
posted by Little Dawn at 11:23 AM on April 7, 2019 [25 favorites]

Honestly, I would just nod and say "uh-huh" a lot.

And reflect their words back at them, like:

A: Oh hey, I am so bummed, my boss literally screamed at me today.

B: Wow, really? He *screamed*?

A: Yes, in fact he did it in front of several other people during a meeting.

B: Wow that's terrible. I am so sorry. You must be pretty shaken.

A: Yeah, it's been pretty hard, because I'd been preparing to talk to him about a promotion.

B: Wow. I bet you were not expecting him to yell at you instead.

A: Yeah, and the grandboss was there as well. It was so awful, downright humiliating.

B: I'm sure it sucked. Can I make you some tea? For what it's worth, I think you are great at your job.

A: It just feels like I can't win. I've been working my a** off and this is my thanks.

B: Yeah, you'd think they'd thank you for all your hard work.

A: Yeah, and then I got a parking ticket.

B: What???

A: Yep.

B: Really sorry bud. Know what, let's do something really fun this weekend.
posted by M. at 11:24 AM on April 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

besides "Oh no!" and "I'm so sorry!" I favor "That's so awful!" and expanded, descriptive variations on how and why the thing is awful. that is not very good either, but nothing is.

the genuinely important thing is that different people want to hear different things, you can't know in advance, and never ever believe people who in the throes of their own tragedies tell you there's a universal script or a universal NO list that "nobody" wants to hear: nobody wants pity, nobody wants advice, other proclamations in that vein. those are lies. some people feel abandoned and alone when they don't know what to do, when nobody will offer any suggestions, only bland "How terrible"s (because "nobody" shares their problems in order to solicit solutions -- but of course some people do). and some people know the difference between pity and condescension and would die for a little sincere pity, rather than have it affirmed that it's ok for them to feel awful.

even more importantly, some people have excellent natural instincts but outside of that, nobody knows the right thing to say. my own mother died, a lot of people said reprehensible or idiotic things to me about it, and yet I have no idea what to say to people whose mothers are dying. the first-hand experience didn't help at all.

some people find some relief in getting angry at people who say the wrong thing (I am one of them) so if you set someone off by saying something that is repetitious or ineffectual but not malicious or offensive, know that you may be doing them a service in your own way.
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:42 AM on April 7, 2019 [9 favorites]

Agree on the importance of listening and the impossibility of planned responses.

The king of listening intently was Fred Rogers. I think of him as my model in getting better at listening well. Watch this conversation to see him in action.
posted by FencingGal at 11:48 AM on April 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

I agree that a planned script will only get you so far, but you've now got some good phrases that you can fall back on to get things going. Those can be helpful if, like me, you tend to freeze/lose confidence in your skills if taken by surprise or feeling overwhelmed by what you're hearing.

The other thing to remember is that it is usually okay to "circle back" if you catch yourself responding in a way that you didn't intend, or if you sense that the other person didn't appreciate your response. "Hey, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you/discourage you from telling me your story, please continue/I want to hear more" can work to get things back on track.

The bottom line is nobody's perfect in this stuff, and you don't have to be in order to help someone.
posted by rpfields at 12:19 PM on April 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Seconding everyone saying there's no foolproof formula, because I'll tell you what, every time someone "reflects back" to me I feel intensely annoyed, like they're just practicing their therapy skills on me or something. What I like best is if the person is genuinely interested in my life and asks for details, shares my feelings of outrage/happiness/sadness etc., and if appropriate helps me think through what to do in a mode that makes it kind of a shared dilemma, like, "god, I don't know, would it work to x?"
posted by HotToddy at 12:32 PM on April 7, 2019 [14 favorites]

This question works nearly 100% of the time: "Would you like to get together and talk about it?"

It says that you hear what they're saying as valid and you care enough about them to be a go-to person for them, but that this is not the time for it.
posted by headnsouth at 1:15 PM on April 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

I like the reflection back, but I can tell if it's rote, like they were just waiting on keywords in what I said and parroted it back. It sounds more different when it's natural - I can't really put into words why or how, but some degree of tying it back into other stuff they know about me helps (e.g. "that sucks, you've been working so hard on XYZ Other Thing, if only life will catch you a break!")

I agree that "what can I do to help" is a tricky question, mainly because in my experience I've been let down way too many times by people who said they can help but either flake out on me or the one thing I actually do need help with is the one thing nobody seems to be able to provide. So I'm reluctant to bring it up.
posted by divabat at 8:32 PM on April 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

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