How do you tell somebody that you sympathise with them; that you understand what they are going through and just want to do or say something that will help them cope with it and – hopefully – help them feel better?
I have a deep aversion to any reliance on trite stock phrases: “I’m sorry”, “Chin up” and all that. They always strike me as insincere and demonstrative of a lack of thought. I like to try to cast my words in an original way – to make my message personal and unique to the person and situation. And that can create problems for me because I need time to compose my response. It’s so much easier in writing but that doesn’t help at all when you’re face to face with somebody who is telling you how they feel. Dealing with emotional content in conversation requires a lot of effort at any time. So I struggle, end up muttering “Sorry” – if I can say anything at all – and feel bad for not managing to come out with what I wanted to say and falling into the trap of cliché.
Still, I’m as bad on the receiving end. I say “Thank you”. Then I start thinking that that’s not enough – I think it sounds like it’s just an automatic response, without any thought. I worry that the person will think I’m ungrateful or insincere. So I want to expand on it but I can’t easily think of appropriate words on the fly – I end up feeling frustrated with myself on top of whatever it was in the first place! Not the other person’s fault – it’s pressure I put myself under.
It would be so much easier if I didn’t feel when people I care about are troubled – when they are feeling sad or hurt. Most of the time I don’t know what to do to “fix” the problem and that hurts me because I think I’m letting them down. And I can’t say all this to them at the time – I can’t tell them how I feel about their situation. I could write it here but that’s clearly not the same. Are a few muttered stock words like “I’m sorry” backed by my full conviction better than another person’s empty words of reassurance uttered in tones of sincerity? I don’t know. Perhaps the end result is more important than the intent, at least to the listener.
All I can really do is tell them that I care about their situation and I want to help if possible. Would it work if I just said that? Or does it sound like a politician’s response to some disaster? When I run the words through in my mind there’s no emotional inflection – it’s like a string of syllables without any semantic aspect – sounds without meaning, empty. I’m saying what I mean and even I am unconvinced, so how could I convince a person I’m speaking to that I am sincere? Writing is a much more comfortable medium in which to express myself.