Thinking about the articles in this series and overhearing a conversation when waiting in a café, has made me think a lot about the way I talk to people and the questions I like being asked.
I was eavesdropping on a conversation between three older women. They spent most of the time talking about their children and grandchildren, mostly boasting about them. When I met my friends, I explained that what I had heard disturbed me. I don’t want to become someone who is defined by her children’s activities and stages of life. I don’t want to be the woman who only asks about children. We talked about how triggering it can be to box someone with our standard questions that we’ve grown to think are appropriate. I realised that whenever I ask a stranger whether she is married or has kids, or what she does for a job, my intentions are good, but the question could be very upsetting. She could have had a miscarriage, she could have lost a child or husband. If we ask what job she has, we are categorising them and they may feel instantly judged.
A few weeks ago, I went to a funeral. I asked the daughter at the graveside, “Are you OK?” Having now just been at my own father’s funeral I realised it was an unanswerable and unfair question. Learning from this, when I met someone who has lost their brother, I simply said, “You’ve had a really tough week. I’ve been thinking and praying for you.” Then I gave her a big hug. There was no response needed.
I’m sure you’ve experienced car-crash conversations that have forced you to learn from your mistakes, but I wanted to share my tips for avoiding painful questions and replacing them with more thoughtful comments.
Avoiding the pitfalls
1) People shouldn’t have to box their feelings into a quick and polite response to your question
When someone is grieving or sad, don’t ask “Are you feeling better? Are you happy now? Are you OK?” When my Dad was particularly unwell and dying, I was sitting by the canal one day and although I was desperately sad, I realised I was happy in that moment. The sun was shining, and I felt a small sense of peace. So, instead we could ask “Have you had a happy moment this week?” or “Has there been something that has brought you some joy this week?” or “Have you had a moment’s peace?” Just saying you’re thinking of them and praying for them is enough. It’s nice to know someone has been thinking of you and you’ve been on their mind.
2) Try to ask vague questions which give them the opportunity to choose the topic and the level of detail they’re happy to share.
We don’t want to be putting people into categories. Asking people if they are married, or have children, or asking what they do for a job can be triggering. They might have decided not to have children. They may have lost a child or be struggling with their children right now. It can make people worried or defensive in a situation that may already be right outside their comfort zone. Instead, ask “What do you enjoy doing with your time?” or “What have you enjoyed doing this week?” Then they can decide what they want to talk about and how much detail to give. This often leads to a more interesting conversation anyway! By using this question, I found out my second cousin is now training to be a Blackbelt in Kickboxing!
3) When texting someone who is having a hard time, try to avoid asking direct questions and don’t expect immediate responses
When you text someone who is struggling, avoid question marks. Instead, simply state that you’re praying for them, they’re on your mind right now and encourage them that they’re on a journey and you’re there for them if they need you. A love heart or a picture is just as important as a long, wordy text. It also gives them permission to just send a love heart back. Even a short voice message on WhatsApp might be less difficult than a phone call sometimes.
4) Don’t just say “let me know if you need anything”, actually do something small to show you are thinking of them.
My mum received a pretty bag with everything you needed to make a quick and easy meal, with a recipe card in it. Her friend said to put it in the cupboard for when she needed it. It was such a thoughtful thing to do and I banked the idea for a time when I’d like to help in a non-intrusive way.
5) In trying to comfort someone, help them to focus on the small things
Once, after a particularly hard time, I just needed to take things hour by hour or day by day. It wasn’t helpful when someone would come and say, “So, what are you going to do now?” It was more helpful for me to hear: “Have you put some nice things in your diary that you can look forward to?”
If this is a topic that interests you, you might like to hear that there is a seminar about why small talk is such a big deal on our Activate Days Away programme. Here is a link to find out more: