Finding the right words

Finding the right words can be difficult when trying to talk about tragic or upsetting news.

It might be talking with a loved one about a diagnosis of dementia, multiple sclerosis or other life changing or terminal conditions.

These are problems you cannot “fix” but with the right words you can be supportive.

How best to support someone sharing sad news was the subject of “When words fail us” a recent episode of BBC Radio Four ‘s “Word of Mouth.”

Presenter Michael Rosen was joined by Kathryn Mannix, therapist, palliative care specialist and author of “Listen: How to Find the Words for Tender Conversations”

Kathryn prefers to describe such conversations as tender – rather than difficult or challenging.

She tells Michael: “We’re walking alongside something that’s very painful or difficult for the person to whom we’re listening, and therefore tenderness is our respect for the presence of their pain; the closeness of their pain.”

She adds: “When you’re talking about emotional pain, you cannot do something that takes the person’s pain away, but you can be rough and uncaring and leave them there in their pain alone, or you can be open and caring and be their companion in their distress.”

Kathryn makes suggestions on how to be a good listener, the importance of allowing moments of silence and also of questions that can help someone to open up, tell their story and process their emotions.

The discussion covers the importance of accepting you may not know the right thing to say, you won’t be able to “fix” the problem.  As Kathryn states: “Your job isn’t to offer the fix. Your job is to be that person’s listener, to be the space into which they pour their distress.”

Finally, Kathryn makes suggestions on how best to close such conversations, whilst recognising it’s a topic you may have to come back to several times in the future. 

This particular podcast can be listened to in full here.

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