5 Things to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say

I remember when I was about 13; I managed to get in a conversation with an old guy about eternity and his time as a bomber pilot in WWII. He asked me what good religion did when guys he served with in WWII died while praying. He never prayed and he was still alive.

My brain was not coming up with good answers. In fact, I was thinking about the horrendous can of warm Diet Coke he gave me. He was pontificating about sin, church, his soul, and salvation, and then said: “I don’t know about that believing in Jesus and getting saved stuff. I suppose it’s too late for me anyway, right?”

Again, I was about 13. I did not want to be there. I don’t even know how we got on the conversation. Or rather, I don’t know how he talked his way into this; I was not conversing at all. I had no idea what to say. So I said, “Yeah, probably.”

Yes, I told him it was probably too late for him to be saved. What a completely terrible answer. I have never forgotten that conversation, or my inability to articulate anything helpful.

Life is filled with uncomfortable moments where you know you are supposed to say something, but for the life of you, you can’t come up with anything.

Funerals, impromptu witnessing opportunities, out of nowhere criticisms, hospital visits, people in the midst of suffering, and various other uncomfortable events, seem to melt away all ability to speak coherently.

So, what do you say when you don’t know what to say? Here are some ideas.

  1. Don’t say anything. Sometimes saying nothing is, in fact, the absolute best thing you can do. Job’s friends sat with him for a week in silence before any of them spoke. Job’s friends didn’t get in trouble until they started talking! Sometimes silence truly is golden, this is especially true with hurting people.
  2. Quote a verse. John Piper tells a story about being asked to say something to a family gathered around the deathbed of a man. Piper had nothing. He went home and memorized a Psalm so he would never be in that spot again. The best words we can speak are God’s words. Have them in your memory.
  3. Ask a question. Flip the role! Asking questions gives you time to think, and might just make the person start thinking and be speechless themselves! Sometimes there are no magic words to solve the problem. Maybe showing interest is the best thing to do. Questions also help the other person process their own thinking. Jesus Christ used questions many times to great effect.
  4. Quote the past. Has anyone ever said anything helpful to you when you were hurting? Remember what they said and use that, there’s no copyright on it! When my dad died, many people said things to me, many of which were awkward and some were even rude. But a couple things were pretty good. I grabbed on to those and now use them myself.
  5. Pray. There have been many conversations where things are getting weird and I know I have to say something soon. Send up a quick prayer, “Oh Lord, help me.” Nehemiah is a great example of this. The king asks him why he’s sad, and before answering, Nehemiah says he called out to the God of heaven! After his quick prayer, he answers the king (Nehemiah 2:4-5). What a great idea for any time we’re about to open our mouths!

I have used all of the above with some success. They all work at the right time.

You would be hard pressed to find someone more socially awkward than me. Yet due to my job as a pastor, I am thrust into socially awkward situations frequently. The more you are put in these situations, the better you become at handling them. One of the reasons why we are so bad with hurting people is because we don’t take time to be with them often. Don’t run from hurting people; be the one who sits, listens, and shows compassion.

In the end, it’s really not about you anyway. You may feel dumb in certain situations. That’s OK. Feel dumb, but try to be helpful and edifying with your dumb! You’re not perfect; stop trying to be. Relax. Pressuring yourself will only make you more awkward. Be kind and show them the love of our Lord Jesus Christ.

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.
–Proverbs 25:11

Pray for opportunities to share God’s word with those around you.

Pray for wisdom in knowing what to say and do for hurting people.

Pray that we would have eyes to see hurting people.

Pray that we find the strength to bear our own burdens, so that we may bear the burdens of others.