What Not to Say to Someone in Crisis

What Not to Say to Someone in Crisis

4 common responses that do more harm than good

Recently, I found myself in a medical crisis. I was battling a severe upper respiratory infection, so my doctor ordered a head and chest x-ray to look into the issue. With hesitancy, the doctor said he wanted to show me something on the film. He'd found a lung nodule and wanted to check it out further with a CT scan. I lost both of my parents to lung cancer, so the news sent me spinning.

Four days later at my CT scan I got both good and bad news. The lung nodule was simply a scar—nothing to worry about. But the scan had found something else: a grapefruit-sized mass on my liver. It could be a simple hemangioma—a collection of blood vessels that was harmless—or something much more serious. Only a more detailed scan of my liver could tell us. When I heard the news, I was overwhelmed. But the worst part came when my friends started offering "encouraging" words. Innocently, they said a lot of things that actually made the situation more difficult. What was meant to comfort did just the opposite.

As small-group leaders, it's crucial that we know how to effectively speak to people in crisis. Our words have a lot of power. In an effort to bring comfort and encouragement, though, we often offer clichés and pat answers that actually make things worse. Here are four common responses that are unhelpful to people in the midst of crisis:

Don't worry! God's got this!

Yes, God is in control. But for the person going through the crisis, this message can be like venom. Although God has called us to place our burdens at his feet, telling people in crisis not to worry doesn't solve the issue. Plus, it can make them feel like they must be lacking in faith because they are worrying. This simply is not the case; it's just the reality of being human.

Rather than make our group members in crisis feel guilty, it's better simply to acknowledge their worry, fear, or hurt. Make it safe to talk through what they're feeling, and they'll experience a lot more calm and peace than if you'd simply tell them to stop feeling the way they feel. Once while attending a counseling workshop, I heard a participant share a helpful sentiment: "I'm not ready to be happy." People in crisis don't want to hear everything is going to be fine. They need someone to acknowledge their current struggle and walk with them.

A more helpful response than "It's going to fine!" or "God's got this!" would be to say something like: "I'm sure you're scared and worried. Is there anything I can do for you?" Another way to say it: "I can't even begin to imagine what you're going through. What can I do to help?" These responses acknowledge the difficulty of the situation, and they let the person tell you what he or she needs.

I know exactly what you're going through.

Though we may be able to relate to what the person is going through, we haven't had the exact experience. While there is some comfort in knowing that others have struggled in similar ways, it can be painful to hear people say, "I know exactly what that feels like"—because they don't. Our situations are unique, and we need to be honest about that. Even if we've gone through very similar circumstances, our ways of handling it, our emotions, and our struggles will be different, and a response like this projects our own experiences onto others.

Worse, this kind of response can appear to be minimizing the seriousness of the situation. It may sound like: "I've gone through this before, so it's not that big of a deal. You'll make it through, too." We must find a way to acknowledge the difficulty and not make light of it with a response like this. A more helpful response is something like: "It sounds like this is really difficult" or "That sounds incredibly painful. I'm so sorry." Rather than say you know what they're going through, let them know that the group will walk through the situation with them.

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