You listen to her quiet words. She’s trying to be brave, but she looks tired. Her eyes distant, even when she looks straight into yours. You know that look, that exhaustion, that feeling the tears are just waiting for a reason to come.
You long to encourage your friend. But what would help her?
Doing things to help can be a big encouragement. But supportive words help too. With special needs kids at home, I’ve often needed that from others. Instead, there have been some real whoppers I’ve gotten when I needed encouragement most.
Here are my favorites, that stuck with me because of how hurtful they were at the time. This has become the list I try NOT to say (but frequently catch myself saying anyway) to someone who’s struggling.
What NOT to say as encouragement:
- “I know what you’re going through.” (Unless you’re their Siamese twin, it’s not true.)
- “You just need to…” (If it was that easy to fix, they would have done so.)
- “I went through this when…” (Makes the conversation all about the encourager. Lame.)
- “Look on the bright side” (Sounds good, but disregards their feelings.)
- “Don’t worry about it.” (When was the last time you stopped worrying when someone said that?)
- “You think it’s bad now! Just wait until she’s a teenager.” (Which may be encouraging… just not on our planet.)
- “There must be a reason for things to have happened the way they did.” (I guarantee they’ve already wrestled with that one.)
- “Maybe God’s trying to teach you __________ (fill in the blank).” (Who died and made us God?)
- “This too shall pass!” (True. But about as pleasant as lemon on a paper cut.)
- “God’s making you stronger through this” (Thank you, Captain Obvious.)
Why do we all slip up and say things like that? Because we love the person. We want them to be happy. We want to help, but feel a little lost about how. Or maybe their struggle is uncomfortable for us and brings up hurts we wish it didn’t. Or, if it’s someone near us in the check out line, we empathize with looking like a lame mom who can’t control her toddler.
If the list above doesn’t help, what does?
What we can say to truly encourage others:
It boils down to this: to encourage means to embolden, to strengthen, to fill with courage. Courage is ultimately something that comes from inside each of us. So our job, when we want to encourage others, is to help them find it and press in to it on their own. Here are some words that encouraged me in the toughest times:
- “I’m here for you.”
- “I believe in you.”
- “You are handling (specific choice/situation) really well.”
- “I’m sorry for what you’re going through.”
- “Take as long as you need to process what you’re feeling.”
- “Your feelings matter, and they’re OK.”
- “I’m praying for you.”
- “I value you, and our friendship.”
- “What would support you right now?”
- “I really see (name the positive characteristic) in you in this situation.”
“Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” – Proverbs