Why it's not helpful to tell me what to say

I’ve been seeing quite a few blog posts or articles lately in my social media feeds, offering advice about what to say to someone who is in mental distress of some sort.

They’ve had headlines like:

“What not to say to someone who’s just been told they are terminally ill”

“Why it’s not helpful to say X to someone who’s upset about being unable to have children”

“Three things you should never say to someone who’s just lost their job”

“What to say to someone who’s undergoing (insert difficult life experience here)”

These articles are well-meaning and obviously make sense to the person who has written them, and from what I can tell, they’ve been written with the intention of being helpful.

I’d like to stick my neck out here, though, and explain, as best I can, why these articles are misleading, and why, whether I’m in a coaching conversation or just chatting with a friend, it would make no sense to me to tell someone what to say or do.

There’s a whole rich and bottomless conversation we could have about this, but there are two things that are really standing out for me about this at the moment.


1. Your feelings are not at the mercy of what others say or do (thank goodness)

What you are feeling at any given moment is the energy of Thought that is constantly flowing through you, taking the form of emotions - you are not feeling someone else’s words or behaviour. This is not a bumper sticker “sticks and stones” quote or nice idea - this is how your (and my, and everyone’s) experience of life works. We think it > we feel it. We are only ever feeling our thinking, and when our thinking changes (as it inevitably does) our feelings change.

If you really understood, really knew in your bones, that that is true, it would make no sense to you to try and get people to behave in line with your expectations so that you would feel a certain way (or not feel a certain way). When I’m really seeing it, it makes no sense to me to try and manage other people’s words or behaviour, because I see very clearly that what they’re saying or doing has nothing (0%) to do with how I’m feeling.

I get tricked by this too - I’m only human, and sometimes it really looks to me like I’ve been hurt or upset by what someone else has said or done - but I know, 100%, the truth of how it really works. That gives me enough presence of mind not to stew for too long about what someone else has said, and to avoid feeling compelled to address it with them in the heat of the moment (this rarely ends well in my experience).

Expecting someone to say ‘the right thing’ for you and your current perception of your circumstances, and getting upset when they don’t, is kind of crazy. What one person thinks is the perfect thing to say, another finds clichéd, or trite, or annoying, or upsetting. How could we get it right?

Even the articles don’t agree - one article says “say this”, and another says “don’t say that, whatever you do”.

The one thing they all have in common is that they are written based on a false premise: that our feelings are a direct result of someone else’s words or actions.

They are not, they never are and they can never be.

2. Everyone’s doing the best they can

We all live in a world of thought. Every one of us is doing our best, given the thinking we have going on at that moment.

I have and will undoubtedly get it ‘wrong’ at some point - I’ll say something that will be interpreted as insensitive or unkind (maybe I’ll even feel that way about it too, when I reflect). When we see that we’re all in the same boat - doing our best with what we have at the time - there’s less room for judgement and anger, and more room for compassion and understanding.

Just as you have no control over what I say or do (even if you’ve written an article specifically telling me), I have no control over how you will take what I say or do. I’m going to be saying what makes sense to me at the time we’re having the conversation, and you’ll be hearing whatever you hear. We’re both doing the best we can.

And I would rather hear the love in my friend’s voice when she says “I don’t know what to say” than have her recite something she read in an article but that doesn’t really come from her heart.

So to me, rather than telling people how to behave in certain circumstances, it makes much more sense to keep pointing them to the true source of their feelings in any moment, leaving them free to listen to their own naturally-emerging wisdom and compassion rather than caught up in a storm of thought trying to remember what the ‘right thing’ to say was in that article they read last week and worrying about getting it wrong.