Baz Gascoyne considers how unhelpful platitudes are and the need for more genuine empathy.

Baz Gascoyne
Baz Gascoyne

Recently, I have found myself becoming annoyed with people who spout out platitudes to others, believing it will be helpful to their situation. Don't get me wrong: I've done it myself and then realised it wasn't helpful at all, telling myself "in future keep your big mouth shut."

I read the following tweet recently:

'Just because something isn't happening for you right now doesn't mean it won't happen. God's timing is perfect.' As I re-read this a number of times I could sense I was growing angrier each time I read it. I decided not to reply to this tweet that day as my response wouldn't have been helpful!

I kept asking, why was I feeling like this? Maybe I was thinking of my close friends and myself where it seems God's watch has stopped or is too late and what we were hoping for will never happen now. Some things may happen; but they may not and on those occasions platitudes can seem glib.

We've all heard them and probably all have our favourites: such is life; everything happens for a reason (including suffering and early death?); good things come to those who wait; it was meant to be, (then why did we bother trying to make it not be?); time heals all wounds, (how about losing a limb?); tomorrow is another day; just think about how much worse other people have it; God never gives us more than we can bear.

I understand that when we say the above, we're trying to be encouraging and help the other person, but in reality it can sound simplistic. There is no point me saying, "It could be worse," or, "It wasn't meant to be" as a word of encouragement to a person who is in the midst of internal turmoil, because no matter how much we think it will comfort the person it rarely does. Sometimes the best thing we can do is 'SHUT IT!' To just be there for our friends instead of trying to do the man thing and sort it!

Brené Brown, a Research Professor at the University of Houston, talks about the belittling phrase 'at least' that gets used when trying to cheer people up. Platitudes fit in the same camp: they can devalue and invalidate someone's experience. Brené contrasts these phrases with true empathy, 'Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of "you're not alone".'

We've probably all been on the receiving end of a platitude and sighed inwardly, or even wanted to punch the person, and so know how it can feel! So next time we're with someone going through tough times, rather than assuming we understand and giving them one of our favourite phrases, maybe it would be best for us to be quiet and let them tell us what they are experiencing; supporting and caring with compassion and empathy rather than feeling that we have to say something. Do me a favour, next time you feel a platitude about to leave your mouth, please just SHUT IT! CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.