Many people are trying to put their lives back together following Hurricane Florence. Trauma is an ugly time because it is a time of loss. That is why anyone who has gone through a trauma appreciates kind words and actions. Unfortunately, many leaders and managers make the trauma worse by saying stupid things at those sensitive times.
I work with individuals to think bigger and reach higher, often finding the opportunities in the midst of trauma. One of the ways I do that is to help those leaders leverage the emotional power of language to build connection, foster collaboration and create solutions. This is especially important during times of trauma.
In this article, I detail 10 of the Worst Phrases Used Following a Trauma. We have discovered these from the research for our newly revised book, “The ROI of Compassion.” Compassion is the process of coming alongside another to help alleviate their pain. This is critical to business success because the process of noticing, feeling, thinking and acting is often what disengages or engages team members. That is why compassion is the best business strategy and practice. If we don’t care, they won’t. If we show we don’t care when they are hurting, can we blame them for disengaging?
1. “How are you doing?”
This is very well-meaning but not very helpful. But I understand the spontaneous way it flows out of our mouths. We do want to offer our help and see how we can help. But let’s face it if someone has just lost a loved one, a job or gotten a bad medical report, how do you think they would feel? Duh?
Compassionate Alternative: Notice how they look and offer to do something for them. For example,
- “What can I get you to eat?”
- “Sit down while I do these dishes for you.”
- “Would you like a ride to the doctor (or somewhere else that you know they need to go)?”
2. “That must hurt.”
Duh. Sometimes we are better off not saying anything. Silence is preferable to stating the obvious.
Compassionate Alternative: See #1 or be quiet.
3. “Were you close to your mother-in-law (or another relative who died)?”
This may sound like a compassionate question but when the executive asked it, he really meant, “This doesn’t mean you will take any more time off, correct?” He was more concerned with “butts in seats” than about her, much less her husband.
Compassionate Alternative: “Tell me about her. What will you remember most about her?”
4. “When will you be back to work?”
A couple tried for years to get pregnant and finally “the stick turned blue.” They were ecstatic. They enjoyed preparing the nursery and sharing their show with family and friends. But then something happened late in the pregnancy and the baby was stillborn. They were absolutely devastated. Laying stunned and saturated with grief, the mother had a surprise visitor one day. Her immediate supervisor appeared unannounced. She was pleased to see him. He clumsily said, “Sorry for your loss” and then blurted out, “When will you be back to work?”
How do you think she felt? At that point, why would she have ever worked for him or that company again?
Compassionate Alternative: Care about the individual first. Understand that pain. Forget about work until later. If you are uninformed about the typical recovery time, ask someone else.
5. “Did you see any dead bodies?”
“Did I actually hear you ask me that?” Anyone who has gone through a trauma like 9/11 struggles with the memories. The last thing they need is someone asking them to relive the horror just to satisfy their sick curiosity.
My father-in-law was a medic in the Korean War and was trapped behind enemy lines at one point. You can imagine what he saw and couldn’t forget. No wonder he never talked about it. While our curiosity as civilians might drive us to ask such an insensitive question, there are times where we simply need to shut up and let them tell us what they want or if they don’t want to say anything.
Compassionate Alternative. While it might be therapeutic to talk about what they saw, leave that to the professionals or those who have been there. The best thing any of us who have not had that experience is to listen (notice) and feel. Let them speak, or be quiet. Don’t press for gory details.
6. “Did you kill anyone?”
This sounds like #5 but with a different twist. Combat is the daily trauma of not knowing what the next minute will hold. It is also doing what one is trained to do that would be illegal under other circumstances. Killing is a traumatic action and living with the memory is difficult for many. Don’t ask them to relive it, especially if it is simply for your information.
Compassionate Alternative: Like #5, listen and let them talk when they are ready. If their behavior is unhealthy, recommend a professional.
7. “Why are you so distraught, he was only your step-son.”
A “real mother” actually told my wife this following my son’s death. She had known and loved him as her own for 16 of his 22 years. Obviously, the woman speaking felt that bearing the child trumps all other mothering relationships like stepchildren or adoption.
Compassionate Alternative: Double check your beliefs and assumptions before saying anything like this. In this case, it would have been better if she had not said anything or better yet, understand any mother’s loss.
8. “Let’s face it, suicide isn’t very smart.”
I heard this from what was a close acquaintance. Fortunately, he said it over the phone or I might have punched him in the face. What an absolutely insensitive comment. Not only had I lost my youngest but this idiot just called him stupid. Ugh. I responded, “Suicide isn’t a logical decision. It is an emotional one. Therefore it cannot be smart or stupid. Suicide is perceived as the only way to alleviate debilitating pain. It isn’t selfish or stupid. Do we regret his actions? Of course. But don’t call it a stupid decision.”
Compassionate Alternative: Again, as with #7, double-check your assumptions before making a statement. Often it is much better to simply say, “I’m sorry” and mean it. Work on feeling for them in their loss.
9. “You can have another child/dog/house/job/etc.”
Losing someone or something cannot be replaced. But more than that, in the middle of our grief, we are working to adapt to that new normal without what we lost. In that process, we are working to let go of what we lost at a time when we don’t want to lose them or it. That process is not easy in part because we loved what we lost. If we could turn back the clock, we would do whatever we could to prevent that loss. If we didn’t grieve the loss we wouldn’t be grieving. So to tell someone that they can have another of what they lost (especially a child) is not helpful.
Compassionate Alternative: Let them talk about what they lost. Talking (or not talking as we read earlier) is a method of finding that new normal. Don’t try to fix the problem. Work selflessly to help them find their new normal. That will likely take a lot of silence on your part.
10. “Get over it.”
This might be the most egregious comment one can say. It is an arrogant, selfish command that really says you are tired of them grieving. It shows no concern for the other. You just want them to move on and return to normal. Well, guess what? That normal is gone forever. If we are not “getting over it” that means we haven’t figured out how to let go without losing a valuable piece of who we were. We don’t want to “get over” losing a loved one because we still love that person and how they made our lives better. Yes, we understand that the grieving process might be uncomfortable and inconvenient for you as a leader but, quite frankly, that is not our concern. We are just trying to find our way.
Compassionate Alternative: As a leader, we do need to be concerned about work and if their performance is suffering, ask what you and the team can do to help them be more productive. Focus on a solution for the task at hand. Also, realize that trauma often reorders an employee’s priorities. Getting over” the trauma may mean they move on from employment with you. How you handle it might keep a great employee or drive them away.
Did you think of phrases that I didn’t mention? If so, please join the conversation by leaving a comment below.
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Loren Murfield, Ph.D.
I work with leaders and organizations think bigger and reach higher to find breakthrough success. This is a process that I can help you learn. Begin the process today by contacting me.
Start learning how you can engage employees during their most traumatic moments in our newly revised and just released book, “The ROI of COMPASSION.”