Don Follis: The holiday phrases people most need to hear

Don Follis: The holiday phrases people most need to hear

In my work in the ministry, I occasionally have made a statement that now makes me cringe. As people talked with me, I responded, "I know how you feel."

I wasn't trying to be uncaring by saying that, but looking back I'm quite sure that I did not know then, nor do I know now, how people feel. I even strengthened the statement sometimes by adding, "I know just how you feel." Or "I know exactly how you feel."

You're cringing now, too, because I bet you've said those very words. You still may. I not only don't know how other people feel. Half the time I have no idea how I feel. Sometimes getting in touch with my emotions is hard. So I simply resort to: "Oh, I'm fine." As if fine is an emotion.

In his book "Don't Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart — How to relate to those who are suffering," Kenneth Haugk says, "No one knows how you feel and you don't know how anyone else feels."

In my eagerness as a young pastor, I guess I thought it was my job to speculate as to how people felt. The problem with that, says Haugk, is that "you rob the other of his or her unique identity."

Not to mention turning the conversation and making it about me. "Hi, I'm your pastor. I know exactly how you feel. Let me tell you about my interesting experience. It's probably more awful than yours."

The next time someone tells you they know exactly you feel I suggest you give them this abrupt response: "Well, no you don't. You really have no idea how I feel." And then if you are so bold you can add, "With all due respect, you are not listening to me. I need you to just listen for a minute. I don't need to hear your experience, and I don't need you to try and fix me." If every person had the wherewithal to say that, the "I know how you feel" phrase would be gone in no time at all.

There is a world of difference between "I know how you feel" and "How are you feeling?" If you think you must say something at all, you can say, "I remember when a similar thing happened to me and how I felt." You are remembering how you felt, not telling them you know how they feel.

The "I know how you feel" phrase has a close cousin named "keep a stiff upper lip." I know I have said, "Hang in there. Keep a stiff upper lip." But do you know one person on the planet that wants to hear that? When that's our response, we put all kinds of unrealistic and unhealthy expectations on the one who more than anything else simply needs our listening ear.

I remember someone once saying to me, "I know someone who was in a very similar situation as you are. He just sucked it up and went on. He really was at peace, too. That's what you have to do. "

You know what this says, don't you? It says, "You're handling this all wrong. You're weak. Let me tell you how to do it. Now come on, buddy. Time to get over your suffering and get on with life."

Another one of my favorites is, "You can be sure that God never will give you more than you can handle." I'm guilty of saying this, too. And people I have said it to actually have responded, "I know that's what the Bible says. I'm doing my best to hang in there." Actually, no. The Bible nowhere says that. It's a bad explanation of I Corinthians 10:13, where the Apostle Paul is speaking about temptation, not suffering.

In fact, some people get way, way more than they can handle. And by the way, who says God is the one sending all that stuff their way?

These platitudes we glibly throw out go on and one, don't they? "It's really for the best." "Well, at least ... ." "Oh, come on now, you shouldn't feel that way." "I guess it just must be God's will."

With Thanksgiving and Christmas coming ... with people worrying about their health insurance, or lack of health insurance ... with people fretting about their retirement and their investments ... with so many even unable to get a decent job, they really do not need you or me saying, in effect, "Hurry up and get over this."

So I've come up with some phrases for you to practice each day between now and the end of the year. You can call them "My Special Holiday Phrases": "I'm so sorry." "I'm so sorry to hear that." "I'm so sorry you have to go through this." "I can only imagine." "That sounds so hard." "I see how important this is to you." "It's good to see you. Fill me in on what's happening."

Writer Haugk in "Don't Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart" says, "You don't have to theologize or psychologize or sing away the other's heavy heart. You couldn't do it anyway."

One of the most effective and powerful ways for you to enter the holidays will be to invite others to open up and talk while you do the exact opposite.

Be quiet. Listen. Give affirming nods. Use the special holiday phrases. If appropriate, put your hand on your friend's shoulder and simply say, "I sure love you."

That is the one "holiday phrase" people most need to hear!

Don Follis has been a pastor in Champaign-Urbana for more than 30 years. He has mentored more than 200 pastors and missionaries throughout the United States. He can be reached at

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