Not knowing what to say is one of the universal challenges about being human, especially when it comes to heavy conversations. Talking with someone who is in pain can be even more difficult to navigate whether they reached out specifically for support or not. Sometimes emotions come up suddenly and you may find yourselves having a conversation neither of you expected. While none of these examples work for everyone, nor should they be used in place of professional advice, we hope they can guide supportive communication when it’s needed. Here are 6 things to say when someone’s in pain.
1. “You have my attention”
As someone who’s been on both ends of this conversation, I understand just how frustrating it feels not to be heard when I’m trying to reach out. This one simple sentence lets me know that the person who’s listening truly values what I feel and what I have to say. It lets me know that I have the time and space to be truthful and voice my needs, whatever they may be.
2. “What is your biggest concern right now?”
Emotions can be messy and unclear, so if you’re unsure what’s wrong or how you can help, don’t be afraid to ask questions. The more you know, the more you can do to support them. It’s possible that thinking out loud may help them sort through their emotions and thoughts as well. It’s just as possible that answering questions might feel overwhelming when they are already in pain, so a patient and flexible mindset is essential. If they are unable to answer, just be there with them.
3. “I’m here to listen”
As much as you may want to jump in to help, sometimes the best thing to do is just to listen. According to a 2007 study done through UCLA, talking about feelings disrupts the activity of the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for the flight-or-flight response. This is why, over time, talking about problems or emotions helps them feel like less of a big deal, and why talking can be one of the most productive things you can do for your mental health. If that’s not enough reason to lend an ear to a loved one in need, I don’t know what is.
4. “What do you need right now?”
Sometimes it’s okay to let the person who needs support take the lead. No one will know better than they do what might help them, except of course a medical or mental health professional. It’s important to remember that everyone has their own idea of what support or comfort might look like, so try not to get frustrated if your strategies aren’t connecting as well as you’d like. For me personally, I love to talk through whatever is happening, but I know that isn’t the case with everyone.
5. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Sometimes when I reach out to someone, I don’t necessarily want to talk. Sometimes I’m not ready, or I’d rather spend my energy elsewhere. I think this question is a good place to start no matter what the context is. It gives you the chance to offer support, but it also lets everyone involved do whatever feels most comfortable for them in the moment. Remember, talking isn’t the only way to be there for someone–– a little company can go a long way.
6. “I want to understand this more so I can help”
When someone is in pain, it’s especially important to be honest with them if you don’t understand or aren’t able to help. This will save both of you from spending unnecessary time and energy on something that won’t be helpful to either of you. It’s ok to let them know if you cannot help, even if they reached out to you (your mental health is important too), but sometimes a simple explanation is all that’s needed to get everyone on the same page. It never hurts to ask.
Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H., & Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words: affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological science, 18(5), 421–428. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01916.x