Updated: Apr 15, 2020
In the World War II mini-series titled Band of Brothers there is a scene that stands out in my memory. During this particular part of the movie, the soldiers approached a cluster of buildings and as the unit moved in, their instructions were repeated, “Move, move, move!” I soon saw why. As one soldier hunched down to take cover and to decide what to do next, he was shot by a sniper. Moving targets are just harder to hit. The words “Move, move move,” didn’t only advance the attack strategy, they helped soldiers dodge bullets. While it might have felt safer to be still, it wasn’t.
I thought about the scene as I heard a friend of mine talking about his divorce. The divorce was unexpected and was naturally an extremely difficult time of his life. He shared that only one person from work called him. He was surprised and disappointed by this. From his perspective, it didn’t seem like anyone cared about him. It didn’t make sense to him and it might not make sense to you.
It makes sense to me though. When people are afraid, they freeze. It’s simply a defense mechanism. Like a deer caught in the headlights or the solider in the movie who stood still while deciding what to do next, being still or saying nothing, feels safer. We don’t want to say the wrong thing, so we don’t say anything. I get that. The sheer volume of apologies I personally have voiced concerning dumb comments, would choke a horse. In my defense, I’m in front of people for hours at a time, so the probability goes up for saying stupid things. That same load of apologies also makes me gun-shy. It’s an awful feeling to know my words were too sharp or too insensitive, and that I’ve inflicted wounds upon an already wounded person, no matter how slight. When I’m silent, I’m protecting myself from the pain and embarrassment of making a mistake and I’m also trying to protect another person from getting hurt.
Haven’t we all been the sender or the receiver in this scenario? One friend of mine has post traumatic shock because she asked a non-pregnant person when her baby was due. OUCH! We jump at the chance to tell the stories that begin with, “You aren’t going to believe what he said to me.” Words are powerful and those awkward situations leave bruises. Isn’t it better to just keep quiet?
No. Not when someone is experiencing some life changing event or health issue, or we simply haven’t seen them at church for a while. When we don’t reach out to someone in our church family, it is highly likely that the individual feels ignored and hurt.
Customer service experts will tell you that being ignored in a retail store is worse than receiving rude treatment. Observe a group of children in a conflict. The one who is treated as invisible is clearly more upset than another child who is receiving a verbal insult. Being ignored is to be denied you exist, or that you matter.
Yes, it is really difficult to know what to say to someone in the wake of a divorce, death, cancer, addiction, or even if they have skipped a few Sundays. When you decide to reach out there is a risk that you might say the wrong thing. However, for people to know we care about them and for people to get the support they clearly need, we must take this tiny risk.
Stick these phrases in your pocket and pull them out whenever needed on the front lines of connecting during a potentially awkward time. For me, texting is a great unobtrusive, less awkward way to reach out to people and these phrases work with texting as well. I trust you to decide if a call, note, or visit would be better. Clearly, we can’t be everyone’s best friend, so a call or visit might be a bit intimidating whereas a text is not.
“Hey, just checking in with you to see how you are doing today.” “Time for lunch or coffee this week?” “I’m out running errands. Is there anything you need?” “We need to catch up; it’s been a while. All okay?” “You popped in my mind today. All okay?” “I definitely want to be supportive, but sometimes I’m not quite sure how to do that. Please let me know what you need.” “Hey, I made a ton of taco soup. Would you like me to bring some for dinner?”
Pocket phrase responses:
“I get that,” covers almost any situation. It’s definitely my go-to phrase and has never failed. “So what are you thinking about that?” “Tell me more.” “I really appreciate you.” “It’s okay to withdraw a bit if you need to.” “Thanks so much for the update.”
The intent of these little pocket phrases is simply to equip you with a gentle way to open the lines of communication, and to acknowledge the person is important. The next step is to simply let them take the lead with the conversation. They might or might not want to talk. That’s their call and you can easily follow their lead with head nods, affirming emojis. Even if they don’t respond at all, you have avoided the self-defense trap of silence and communicated to another person that you care. Either way, it’s a win- win. If you do end up saying something you would like to take back, call me because I totally get that.