Monday Mitzvahs: 3 Keys to Avoid Saying the WRONG Thing

We’ve all done it, someone is hurting and we say the wrong thing.  Many of us have been on the other side too, having the wrong thing said to us.  When sad things happen, and life is full of them, sometimes it is hard to know what to say.

This happens most commonly with funerals and serious illnesses such as: cancer.  And it gets even more complicated with less common tragedies such as suicide, and sexual abuse/assault.  When faced with these situations too often we either say the wrong thing or say nothing at all.

EmpathyThere is a reason for this.  Empathy is a skill that does not come naturally to most people, but you can learn it.  You have to work at it though.  Brene Brown taught me this in her book, I Thought It Was Just Me.  She talks about how to cultivate empathy.  Apparently colleges try to teach this skill to people majoring in psychology and social work.

This explains something my therapist said once.  I had asked him why it felt like only the “professional people in my life knew how to help” and by this I meant show empathy.  (These have been a few exceptions of course).  He said, “Maybe that is why they are the professionals.”   I couldn’t figure out the connection.  To me empathy is a way of showing love…I thought everyone could do it if they just tried…but apparently I was wrong.

So if you feel like you are lacking in the empathy department (and most people are unless they have consciously cultivated this skill), I have a few pointers to get you started.    I know you are busy so here are some suggestions that take various degrees of commitment.

First, if you need help now here’s the key in a nutshell: don’t talk, just listen.  Yes, it really is that simple.  Too often people say the wrong thing because they start trying to solve a problem when they don’t really know what the problem is because they haven’t listened.  One of my favorite things about therapy is that my therapist doesn’t try to solve my problems for me.  He listens, and he asks questions to help me find my own answers.

Key #1 When you don’t know what to say, just listen.

The next step is more complicated, but so worth it to learn.  This tip comes from a LA Times Op Ed piece, brilliantly said.  In “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing”  Susan Silk and Barry Goldman explain the “Ring Theory”.   As they explain in the Op Ed piece, you write the name of the person who is suffering and then put a circle around it.  Then write the name of someone close to them,  i.e. a spouse, parent or child write that and circle it to from an outer ring.  Keep going until you find the appropriate ring to place yourself.

Then Comfort IN, Dump OUT….if you are talking to someone in a circle smaller than yours, you mostly just listen.  They get to vent, scream, cry, and you listen.  If you also need to vent, scream and cry, do it with someone in a larger ring than your own.  Simple but so powerful.  I highly recommend you click on the link and read the article from the LA Times.

Key #2 Ring Theory: Comfort IN, Dump OUT

Finally, if you really want to help others, and help yourself as well, read everything Brene Brown has ever written.  Ok, I’m teasing.  Seriously, start with  I Thought It was Just Me.  She discusses empathy as part of shame resilience.  If I could, I would buy a copy of this book for everyone I know.  I believe if everyone read it and applied it we would not only be happier, but we would be better parents, spouses and friends.  Seriously, it’s powerful stuff.

Key #3 Cultivate the talent of empathy

Learning to truly listen and show empathy may be the best acts of kindness you will ever give.


Monday Mitzvah’s were inspired by Linda Cohen.  Check out her page HERE  or read her book 1000 Mitzvah’s


  1. This is practical advice, Leslie. I so often say the wrong thing. Introspection usually reveals that I tried to make “it” about me; to use their pain to build my image. I would add “Do something instead of talking.” Listening is doing as you say. Something as small as polishing shoes for the funeral the person in pain must attend may say a lot. We can do big things too if warranted like getting a crew together to harvest the sugar beet crop.

    Thanks again for clarifying for us why saying something is not necessary and can be counterproductive.

    • Robert, I can’t imagine you saying the wrong thing. You always have such thoughtful comments.

      You know, your comment about the shoes gave me an idea for next week’s post. Thanks! You are inspiring me. 🙂

  2. Hi Leslie,
    I followed the link back from a comment you made about my comment (thank you by the way!) and loved this post. I volunteer for a Crisis line and so much of what you said rings so true with me. The ring concept is brilliant!! It is a great prism to view parenting through also. I will be checking out the book. I have read another Brene Brown book and loved it but haven’t seen this one. That’s so much! AG

      • Its honestly been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I was recently made a peer trainer and am now involved in training people for the phones and its amazing work. My therapist actually recommended it and I think its an awesome way to say thank you for all the people who helped me to heal.

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