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What to Say to Church Members in Awkward or Difficult Situations (+ What to Avoid)

Note: I am not a mental health professional, I am not a PhD in anything, and I do not pretend to be an expert in the fields of communication or psychology. All I am is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who has the privilege of hearing many of your insights, voices, and stories. I am grateful to all of those who have opened up to me through the years and confided their insights. It is these experiences I draw on for this article.

I wanted to preface this article with a brief message about what it means to be a part of a church filled with imperfect people. I know intimately the headaches, the tears, the hours of soul-searching, or the years of pain our imperfections can sometimes create. We all fall. We all sin. We all say and do things we shouldn't at times. We are all broken. But together, in Christ, our broken pieces make a beautiful whole. Together we are trying and growing and learning and ministering in wonderfully unique ways.

I hope we all understand and realize that as we communicate with each other in our chapels, during lessons, at the grocery store, in our driveways, through texts, over phone calls, or in our homes. Most members of the Church are a part of this church because they are trying to be better, or at least they want to want to be better. When we may misunderstand one another, let's be generous enough to give our fellow Latter-day Saints the benefit of the doubt and assume good intentions. And let us love them for those intentions instead of dwelling on the awkward or misguided way those intentions might be packaged.

The last thing I want this article to be is a reason for someone to feel self-conscious about speaking up or reticent about reaching out. As Sister Camilla Kimball said, "Never suppress a generous thought." 

Instead, I hope these few tips can help us be more open, inclusive, and loving in our conversations with one another, and I hope this article can help us better match our intentions with the words we use.

When you first meet someone . . .

When meeting a fellow Church member, we often search for commonalities so we can better relate to one another and minimize awkwardness. But this desire can sometimes lead to us asking questions that lean heavily on the assumption that the timing of each of our lives will look the same. And, for some, these questions can become a painful reminder or can make them feel like an outsider.

When it comes to these types of questions, it's best to avoid specifics, such as: Are you preparing for a mission? Are you married? Do you have kids? What do you or your spouse do for work?

Instead, ask more open-ended questions that allow fellow Church members to communicate what is most important to them. For example: Tell me a little about yourself. What are some of your favorite hobbies?

Listen with the intention to learn about them, not to talk about yourself. Chances are topics like a mission, marriage, kids, or work will come up naturally in the conversation, but more importantly, you will learn what is important to this Church member. And when someone shares something unexpected or mentions a topic you know little about, have the humility to ask for an explanation. 

And, in the same spirit of avoiding assumptions, try not to use preliminary "I'm sorry's" in these conversations. Not having kids, being divorced, not serving a mission, etc. are situations in and of themselves that don't warrant pity or an apology. In some cases, these situations are great blessings or learning experiences. So wait until the appropriate moment to say "I'm sorry," and in the meantime ask them to tell you more about their life, views, and experiences. 

When you are wondering if there is anything you can do . . .

Does this sound familiar? You overhear in a conversation or receive a text explaining that your new ministering family/Primary counselor/fellow Sunday School teacher just had a baby/death in the family/emergency surgery. You want to help, but you also don't want to intrude during a chaotic time. You know them . . . sort of, but you don't know what they might need.

You might feel trapped between two options: 1) send them the standby "If there is anything I can do, let me know" message or 2) wait until everything blows over because you don't want to come across as insincere, nosy, or make them feel like a project.

But there are other options. One woman I admire is a phenomenal cook, so she tells families in these situations, "I'm bringing over dinner for your family this week, unless there is something else you need that I can help with." This sister not only plays to her skillset, she also lets families know her offer is sincere. Think of your own talents and time constraints, pray, and then offer specific help. Watch the kids for a night, mow the lawn, write a note, drop off a gift, anything to let them know you were thinking of them.

When someone is hurting . . .

When we have already faced grief, processed emotions, and found powerful answers in our lives, we often want to share those with others, to do our covenant duty of comforting those that stand in need of comfort. But often, people need time to process and work through their own grief before they can reach out to others. 

Sometimes those who are in pain already feel unnecessary guilt for that pain. They might wonder if there is something wrong with them to feel such bone-wearying sorrow when "men are that they might have joy." They might look at or listen to other stories that are perfectly packaged with beginnings and ends and wonder why their story doesn't look the same. What they don't realize is all those stories are told in retrospect. All those stories gloss over the therapy, the years of processing, the midnight tears, the days of darkness that are walked to find those moments of peace and light.

Allow these Church members to feel and experience their pain. More than that, sit with them in their grief. Listen to their pain without looking to fix it or fix them. Love them where they are at. Help them survive day-to-day life as they are adjusting. And validate them, letting them know they are strong, that they are not broken, that the Savior will help them through this.

Then, prayerfully offer to share your own insights with them, but wait for them to give the okay when they are ready to listen. In these conversations, always acknowledge that your situations are not the same. Avoid phrases such as "I know how you feel." Only our Savior can know their pain and the circumstances that surround it. Then, share your experience, quotes, scriptures, and advice always from the perspective of "This is what helped me." Don't try to diagnose their pain or prescribe a solution that will "fix it." The truth is this pain will probably change them, but through it all you can be there to love them.

When someone confides in you . . .

When a loved one confides something heavy or unexpected, their words can sometimes cut like a knife, shatter your expectations, or break your heart. Have compassion for yourself and for the person who turned to you for comfort. Though it may be difficult, try to avoid knee-jerk reactions or expressing surprise. For example, "I would have never expected this from you" might communicate to someone who is already hurting that they have let you down. On the opposite end of the spectrum, don't brush off their comments or search for quick fixes and solutions. This communicates to them that what has been causing them intense anxiety, pain, doubt, or frustration is "not that big of a deal" or that somehow their faith is lacking.

Those who confide in you have already contemplated and agonized over their situation. They're often reaching out from a place of confusion or isolation, trying to grasp hope, searching for the covenant belonging that comes with mourning with those that mourn. More than answers, they need to feel a part of something. They need to feel loved. They need to feel like they belong.

Though you might be blindsided by their revelation, first and foremost communicate your love for that person. Thank them for trusting and confiding in you. Don't force solutions; instead, admit what you do not know. Be transparent about your limitations or the complexity of their situation, but then share what you do know. Let your loved one know you love them, that God loves them exactly how they are, and that they do not have to go through this journey alone.

More than anything, listen more than you talk. Allow them to process and work through their pain while you similarly work through your own emotions. Always offer love, help, and support, but in offering advice, be sure to acknowledge that no two situations are the same. Avoid saying things like, "I know how you feel," "I understand," or "My friend had the same thing happen, and now he's completely happy because . . ."

If you feel inspired to send a quote or article that seems to relate to your loved one's situation, stop and ask yourself what unintentional messages you might be sending. No two lives are the same, so sending these resources as a solution might not send the right message. Instead, let others know you are thinking of them. Tell them they are strong, capable, smart, and that God will direct them in their path. 

Words you can say in almost every situation . . .

"Thank you for telling me/confiding in me."

"I feel closer to you now."

"I don't know everything, but I do know I love you/admire you/look up to you."

"I'm here for you."

"I hear you, and I want you to know I see you and all the good you do."

"You matter."

"Having you as a part of my life has made it so much better and fuller."

"I admire you because . . ."

"Thank you for being my friend and all you add to my life."

"You are strong."

"You are not alone.

Lead image from Getty Images
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