Have you ever told yourself, “I don’t know what to say, so I just won’t say anything!”
I used to be a master avoider. I could smooth things over with black-belt proficiency. But the problems didn’t go away. They just turned into bigger problems later.
On top of being an “avoider” I’m also a “problem solver.” I can come up with a solution to just about any problem within minutes of hearing the details. And I’m pretty good at convincing myself and others that my solution is a good course of action. At least in my own mind. And of course, I’m certain that it’s much better than doing nothing, which I find to be particularly exasperating.
Taken together – avoiding and problem solving – are a double whammy. And they kept me from talking about difficult things for years. Avoiding kept me from engaging in honest, helpful conversations. And problem solving can make others feel like I’m not taking the time to really hear their side of the story.
But setting these habits aside and having the difficult conversations we need to have can be, well…difficult! It can feel like we’re walking into an argument – and who wants to take that walk? We don’t know what to say that won’t sound combative. Or we’re concerned the other person will become defensive and our best attempts to be heard and understood will turn into something frustrating that gets us nowhere.
So where to begin? What to say when you don’t know what to say? These three simple words are a powerful place to start:
“Help me understand.”
Help me understand says I’m listening. I want to hear what you have to say. I want to gather up all of the details and facts and feelings and emotions – even the hard ones – before I respond. It says I care as much about the person speaking as I do about finding answers. It helps us get to the truth about a situation before I start setting off alarms or preparing my position or working myself up to have enough courage to confront someone.
Help me understand is an invitation. It tells my friend, child, spouse, or boss that I’m interested and curious about their thoughts. That I’m open to learning and that I haven’t already made up my mind. That I want to hear more – more details, more facts, more about what’s happening inside of them – before I offer up my own thoughts and ideas. And that I’m not beginning the conversation with a set of solutions already identified.
Help me understand says I’m not trying to read your mind. If you’re like me, you’ve spent enough time trying to be a mind reader. We try to figure out what other people are thinking. About us. Or the situation. Even about what they think we’re thinking. We invest all kinds of emotional energy into trying to read the minds of the people in our lives. From our bosses to our spouses and children, how often do we think we already know why they chose to do or say something that has upset us? Confused us? Confounded us? Before we even have a conversation about it.
So the next time you’re tempted to keep quiet because you don’t know what to say, try saying this instead: Help me understand. Then be ready to see how even your toughest conversations can be transformed into helpful and meaningful dialogue. And how your relationships can move beyond avoidance and problem-solving into authentic connections because you’re no longer stuck not knowing what to say.
“…the words of the wise bring healing.” (Proverbs 12:18)