More Thoughts On the Power of the “Right” Words

This seems like a fitting day to post on the power of the “right” words because my second-born child – and favourite son* – turned eight this morning. And when I was pregnant with Levi, someone said exactly the right words at exactly the right time.

*When I was younger my Mom would often say, “You’re my favourite…youngest daughter.” It always gave me a thrill. To be called favourite anything felt special, so using this designation today honours her diplomatic wording all those years ago.

By way of a quick summary: we received some unsettling test results at our 20-week ultrasound and walked away from the hospital with a 1 in 4 chance our baby was going to be born with an underlying health condition. The whole experience was exhausting and the weight of uncertainty sometimes felt unbearable. When we shared this news with our friends, family, and church community, people rushed to offer sympathy and supportive stories of how they had encountered others in similar experiences where “everything had turned out ‘fine.'” Perhaps, under different circumstances, this would have been the response I needed to hear.

This time it was not.

And then someone I didn’t know very well came to me and simply said: I want you to know that you can call me – any time of the day or night – and I will pray for you.

That’s it. No promise that things would be okay. No story about someone else’s experience.

About a week after Levi was born – healthy – a different friend asked: Tell me how you’re actually feeling about everything that has happened.

I was stunned by this question. Because in the middle of a wave of relief and joy, there were so many other emotions. Guilt over my relief. Sadness over how much time I had spent in worry. Exhaustion from the whole experience. Everyone else in my life – logically – assumed all I felt was relief. But my emotions were extremely chaotic (hello postpartum hormones), and to have someone genuinely interested in plumbing deeper – beyond the situationally “appropriate” feelings – was a powerful experience.

I’ve also written about when a friend told me, in response to my catastrophizing about an inability to breastfeed, that my daughter could “still be a doctor.” Those words were exactly what I needed to hear and tangibly impacted my long-term view of my failed attempts. All of this accomplished in less than 10 words.

I’m not particularly good at finding the right words at the right time. That’s one of the reasons I like to write – I can take time to process and measure my speech to match the posture of my heart.

Also, no doubt we’ve all been wounded – perhaps for life – by unkind words. But the reverse is true, too. The right words can radically impact how we view the world or ourselves.

Finally, Happy Birthday to my sweet boy. Always and forever, my very favourite son.

1 day old
1 year old

Your turn. Do you know someone who has an uncanny ability to find the right things to say to lift a conversation, soothe an emotional wound, or enact change? Can you think of a time when someone has said “just the right thing” when you needed it most?

Header photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

33 thoughts on “More Thoughts On the Power of the “Right” Words”

  1. That was lovely, thanks for sharing! I feel like “do you want to vent or do you want to brainstorm solutions – either one is fine!” I also like “what keeps you busy?” in lieu of “what do you do?” chitchat. It avoids people between jobs, taking some time to figuring things out, or at home with kids having to give an awkward reply.
    My students know any one off answer is going to be met with “tell me more” and when I perch on the edge of the table, it means I’m expecting them to talk more than me.

    1. “Tell me more.” This is genius, and yet I don’t think I’ve ever kept it in regular rotation.

      Sometimes when my kids are struggling with something (but I know me giving advice won’t help) I’ll say something like: Hmm. That sounds hard. What do you think you should do about X. When I don’t try to “fix” the situation, it can give them the freedom to vent AND then look for solutions on their own. Though, often, they don’t even need a solution…they just needed to vent. But I love your line about giving that option in one fell swoop – do you want to vent…or do you wnat to look for solutions.

      I did a post months ago about how hard that “what do you do” question can be and lots of readers suggested: What do you like to do in your spare time. Because that “What do you do” question can be very loaded and emotionally fraught.

    2. “do you want to vent or do you want to brainstorm solutions – either one is fine!” – I LOVE THIS because sometimes people just want to be heard, they don’t want to offered solutions!

  2. I have worked hard on not saying too much. When I don’t know what to say, I tend to babble which of course is the last thing anyone needs. I try asking if the person is comfortable to share or do they need time to process. And listen as best I can.

    1. Yes! Sometimes the best “answer” is just listening and not saying anything at all. So silence can be the right words (or lack thereof)…

  3. I’m loving this post. My husband has the uncanny ability to know the right thing to say to anyone about anything. Some people have that gift, don’t they? I admire him for it and know he’s kept me on the straight and narrow over the years, although I can’t give you a specific example.

    1. Sometimes it really IS impossible to put your finger on how certain people always seem to have the right things to say, but it is a gift!

      I have a friend like this who, just generally, says the right thing, accompanied by the right body language (I think this part can be critical too; she’s sincere, she’s friendly, she always looks and acts 100% engaged in the conversation). She’s also social chameleon and has this magical touch of being able to put everyone at ease. I admire her for it. I tend to be a bit rougher around the edges and can either try to swoop in and “fix” things…or my resposnse can feel a bit awkward socially?

      Also, maybe, people that do this so well don’t overthink it? They just speak from the heart? I try to do this, but my brain doesn’t always know how to process it quickly enough. Perhaps I need to start reframing things to think: What would I want to hear in this situation?

  4. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO LEVI!!!! I love that baby picture… so, so sweet. Those “right words” that you shared were all so perfect. I don’t know if I’m good at that- but I’m trying. I love reading posts like this because it gives me insights into the type of things people want to hear. Basically people don’t want you to gloss over difficult situations with “Don’t worry! Everything will be okay!” People really want to be heard and understood. If we can remember that, we’ll probably say the right thing more often.

    1. Being heard and understood – isn’t that what we truly crave in just about every relationship? And remembering those basic points makes it a whole lot easier to find the “right” words, as you point out!

    1. I’m so glad you have a Soul Sister! What a gift to have someone that can speak the right message at the right time. <3

  5. Beautiful photos! Happy birthday to your son!

    I have a knack with the wrong words. Oh well. I’m learning. It’s so interesting that you have this file of things people have said to you in the past that were just what you needed to hear. I am sure I’ve had people like that in my life, but I can’t recall anything specific!

    1. I have a feeling you’re being hard on yourself; you’re a great writer and you seem VERY diplomatic (e.g. listening to your recent contractor).
      I do think that the “right” words stuck with me in each of the scenarios I write about because they were deeply distressing and I really needed someone who didn’t either try to “fix” the issue or tell me to “buck up buttercup.” Each time, I felt seen and heard…

  6. You know what I love? I love how you can see how Levi got to where he is and what he looks like from his baby photos, but when you first met your baby, you didn’t know what he’d look like now. Like, of course this is what he looks like, but it was a mystery at first! I like seeing kids grow up through that lens.

    I frequently say that Zelda is my favorite kitty friend and Hannah is my favorite dog friend, but they are both my best girls. I hope they don’t ever get together and talk about it behind my back.

    As you know, I am an awkward person. I also send a lot of snail mail, including a fair number of condolence cards. Do you know how many times I look up on the interwebz exactly what I should say because I don’t want to say anything unintentionally dumb? But, when my father died, only one of my friends actually called me (lots sent texts) and on that phone call all she did was say “I’m sorry and it really sucks” and listened to me cry for five minutes. The showing up counted, even if what she said wasn’t the most eloquent thing in the world. It meant everything to me. Even if you accidentally say something that’s not quite right, showing up and doing the thing is what counts.

    1. I was thinking last night when I was looking at his baby pictures how I really can “see” him in them so clearly all these years later. Of course I had no idea what he’d look like now (and now, not really even as an adult). It’s almost like magic, but then in looking back, it all seems to clear.
      Ha – yes, best make sure Zelda and Hannah don’t compare notes and catch on to what games you’re playing just throwing around the term “favourite” so cavalierly.
      Condolence cards are hard; I 100% always look up suggestions. Not so I can copy them verbatim, but so I get a refresher on how to word things so I don’t put my foot in my mouth. Showing up is so much of the equation; in fact, I suspect by not saying anything at all, that can be the “right” words, too. We can’t fix someone else’s grief (or, just about any other woe), but we can be there for them. We can listen. We can show kindness and love. Wouldn’t the world look so very different if we just showed up more often and helped each other carry emotional/physical burdens…

  7. Happy birthday Levi!! What an amazing kiddo!! And what an emotional story- I can’t imagine. That whole pregnancy time is so beautiful and terrifying and overwhelming and just…. so much. THANK GOD everything turned out okay! What a precious gift.

    1. He is amazing. I just keep looking at him tonight and marveling at Where did my little baby go? You get this; can you believe Ethan and Asher used to be teeny tiny? Now they have jobs and cell phones and read books on the floor while you go for cold evening walks with Ivan. What now? When does all this stuff happen?

  8. Happy Birthday to Levi. I love to see photos of different stages of life (and what NGS, aka Engie, said that you see him develop from the baby picture in the 8-year old he is now :)).

    I try to be very careful with words and not try to jump in with my own stories/experiences, because I know that his is NOT what I want when I share my feelings with others (I have a friend, who I know tries to be compassionate, but almost always starts her responses with “Oh, I know, I had the same happen… blabla”).
    I also think saying “this truly sucks” is one of the best responses someone can give to someone in a difficult situation. Acknowledging that something just sucks can be so validating.

    My least favorite response (although surely well-intended) is “everything happens for a reason”. No. Just No. I am sorry, but I don’t think my friend’s brain cancer happened for a reason.

    1. Have you heard of/read Everything Happens For a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved? It’s written by a divinity professor – Kate Bowler – about her experience getting diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer.
      You’re right – people might mean certain things with the best of motives (like when people started telling me all sorts of stories about how they knew other people where things “turned out”; this was NOT what I needed to hear because I didn’t know the end of my story).

      This truly sucks is just about perfect. Even if there IS a clear solution to an issue, as a woman at least, I need to vent and think through/process things before I want someone trying to give me a solution. Have you ever seen the YouTube video called It’s Not About The Nail. I’m linking here. It’s a classic:

      1. Yes, I actually read Kate Bowler’s book! It was good, but I didn’t love it .I guess I was hoping for a little more of a concise message; her writing meanders a bit, but I liked that she used some dark humor and funny anecdotes to lighten the mood and she shared good tips on how to support someone with terminal illness.

        I’ll have to go and check out that YouTube video now 😉

        1. I didn’t love it either (to be honest), but I thought it was interesting, as was her followup book – No Cure For Being Human.
          I hope you watched the YouTube video; John and I talk about it CONSTANTLY.

  9. I find it extremely hard to find the right words. I always feels inadequate in difficult situations. So yes, maybe the ‘I am sorry, this really sucks’ is not so bad. I can’t remember any right words but then I can’t remember any wrong ones either. That either means I have a bad memory or that I don’t have the capacity to listen in a difficult situation? When I am devastated a ‘it’s going to be okay” and a hug will do wonders for me because it makes me feel less alone. I am sure I voiced some wrong words before (not intentionally mind you) or didn’t say anything when I should have. I am still learning and hopefully with old age some enlightenment will set in.

    1. A hug is another non-verbal way of communicating the same sentiment and sometimes that is even more useful than actual words…

  10. Yes, this. I can be socially awkward and have been known to say the wrong thing. I think some people have the gift of knowing what to say, but it is possible to get better at it. I tend to watch and listen (and take mental notes) when people say the right thing and try and work out what makes it right so I can do better at this myself. I have a school chaplain in our current small group so she’s a good one to watch.

    One thing I found most helpful was some training I did for a mentor role working with parents who had complex needs but could benefit from someone walking alongside them. It was a local church-based program but under the banner of a parachurch organisation that had developed the training. We had to do quite a lot of training, and a whole section was on identifying and naming strengths, even in tough situations.

    1. Yes to this: some people seem to naturally have a gift, but that doesn’t mean that those of use that don’t seem to have “the gift” can’t work toward better understanding situations or developing sincere, but predictable, responses. Like “This sucks and I’m sorry” or “Tell me more.”

  11. You’ve already mentioned Kate Bowler’s books in the comments above, but I love how one of her books included a list of things to say/not to say to someone going through something difficult. I am struggling to think of something someone said that was perfect. Instead what stands out are the things I didn’t need to hear. Like can we all agree that you should never start a sentence with “at least…” or “it could be worse…” or at least not when you are trying to comfort someone? I think people try to give others perspective but they maybe don’t need someone giving them perspective.

    I wish I was a person who said the right thing at the right time. I know I don’t have that gift but I hope I don’t elicit the opposite reaction! I went through some really tough stuff in my pregnancy with Paul and was on the receiving end of some much compassion and empathy. I just saw my OB yesterday for my pre-op for something else. The pre-op list of questions includes a question about blood clots. She read the question and was like – ‘well we know that you have had blood clots’. I had one at 34 weeks when I was pregnant with Paul. When it happened, everyone in the practice knew about it. Like the ultrasound tech who did my non-stress tests said, ‘oh are you the woman that had the massive blood clot?’ I am guessing my situation was used as a teaching moment. Anyways, in our talk yesterday my OB said she will never forget my pregnancy because blood clots are so incredibly rare, especially during pregnancy. But I appreciate that, in the moment, no one made me feel panicky about it. Everyone was so calmed and reassuring! I didn’t have the bandwidth at that time to stress about it and I’m so glad I didn’t realize how scary it all was until down the road! My poor mom and sister are both nurses, though, so they understood the gravity of the situation!

    1. The calming nature of a good medical professional cannot be overstated.
      The radiologist who talked with us about my ultrasound results did not have a great bedside manor (just very cold and clinical) and it was so, so hard.
      My family doctor and OB let me cry, ask questions, and I could genuinely tell they ached for what I was going through. That said, I’m so fortunate that I know both of those doctors personally as well (we all had kids attending the same preschool when I was pregnant with Levi), but just in knowing them in a broader context, I appreciate how calm, reassuring and patient they are to listen and to answer confidently but without putting pressure on me or trying to say everything will be okay.

      I think the right response also comes down to respect. As in – is the person really listening to me. Are they trying to tune in to the pain points I’m sharing. Maybe the “right” words start with someone being engaged fully in the situation at hand?

      1. Yes, I think you are right about having respect/really listening. And being comfortable with being uncomfortable? Like I think we want to solve things for others at times or get to the point of acceptance/peace, but sometimes you need to sit in that difficult middle space.

        1. Ohh. What a great point. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable. This is such an interesting perspective and comes at things from a different angle. I think we feel discomfort when we can’t fix everything (or come up with a perfect response/solution), but often we need to be willing to embrace that discomfort for the benefit of the person we’re trying to communicate with…

  12. Loving this. The right words are very powerful.
    I have to ponder the questions a bit longer as I am sadly only have the wrong-words-situations popping up.
    However I try to say some “right words” in situations I can feel. If the hit home I am not sure and will most likely never really know but I keep trying.

  13. I am always amazed when you tell that story of how the person *you didn’t know well* (for some reason, this stands out to me like it’s in blinking neon) was the person who knew just what to say. I don’t often say things like this, but it seems as if she was put in your path at that exact moment to tell you what you needed to hear in that moment – not what others wanted you to hear, whether you needed it or not.
    I never know what to say, and I hate that facet of my personality. I’ve started trying to listen more, talk less. It helps, sometimes, as it keeps me from saying things that could be misinterpreted or insensitive.
    (Side comment: I hate that the radiologist was so… brusque in how they talked to you. Treating people like actual human beings should be a requirement for graduating with a degree in any of the health sciences.)
    And, like others, I am also amazed when I look at Levi-the-newborn (swaddling…sigh…) and Levi-the-(Whoa)-eight-year-old. He is truly your child, Elisabeth.

    1. Ironically, we just had an interaction with a brusque radiologist (well, a technician that was grumpy and a radiologist that wouldn’t talk to us) today!
      And Levi – where did my baby go? I want to smile and cry simultaneously…

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