What to do when words aren’t enough

Contributed article in our business series. Enjoy! – Kimberly

It’s not so surprising when you think about it.

It’s no surprise to most of us that in some circumstances, like when you experience loss, words fall short. 

Yet, while we can see this happening, instead of changing our expectations about what words can and can’t do for us, we keep looking for the “right thing to say.”

When words fall short

Recently, I was talking to my sister about her relationship – or rather the one she was pursuing. To my big sister pride, she had declared how she felt, and as many of us fear, the response she got wasn’t exactly what she was hoping for. It was a lukewarm, brush off that diverted the conversation to other things. 


At the end of the talk with my sister as she walked passed me, I said, “I’m sorry.”

And then I thought, “Those are such stupid words to use in this scenario. Why am I sorry? I wasn’t even a character in this situation. There was nothing I did. In Spanish I would have said “Lo siento,” and that’s when the truth about words became clear to me. 

What we’re really trying to do with words: communicate

We use words to try to communicate the ways we feel about the world. 

So many times they fall short. 

And honestly that’s fine. 

We actually shouldn’t expect them to work perfectly all the time. 

But regardless of what we expect from words, we should expect from ourselves that we do what it takes to clearly communicate our message.

In my case, what I was trying to communicate actually made more sense with the words from Spanish which mean, “I feel that.” 

I was trying to say “I’ve felt this way too before, and I know it’s hard and I feel that you are feeling this hard feeling right now. It’s sad, and you will be ok, and I want you to know that I have felt this way too.” 

How to say what you want to say without actually saying anything

Since I know that’s what I am really trying to say, even if “I’m sorry” doesn’t really say that, I can keep trying to communicate my message of solidarity in OTHER WAYS. 

Like make her favorite food for lunch so I can show her that someone does love her and care about what she likes, even if it’s not the person she had hoped right now. 

Or giving her some space and then going back up and asking if she wants to talk more or go to the library and find a good movie to borrow instead so she isn’t alone this Friday night and not wondering why she isn’t on a date. 

But if I just expected my words to be the only way I could communicate that message, I might end up doing something that actually makes the situation worse. 

For example, I could go hang out with my boyfriend because that’s more fun and leave her alone in her room. 

The key is that when you are in a situation when there are no words, your actions can communicate where words can’t. 

While it might feel easier to have a pocket book full of sayings you can pull out at any time that can communicate what you feel in a flash, it’s more important that you commit to keep trying to share, over and over again. Because when words aren’t enough when you keep trying, you are showing that you are here for them with your actions as much as any words could say.

Key Takeaways:

  • Words fall short a lot of the time. That’s fine. What if you started to expect them too? What other ways of communicating would that open up for you? 
  • Because you expect words to fall short, communicating a different way requires you to get clear on what you are actually trying to communicate. 
  • Then when you consider other ways to communicate: focus on what you know will be meaningful to the person you are trying to communicate to – for example: my sister’s favorite lunch is not going to be the same as your favorite lunch. So if I’m cooking for her or cooking for you, I’m going to make something different. And maybe for you, you’d actually rather make your own lunch, but you would LOVE someone to do the dishes (and for my sister she hates cooking but actually doesn’t mind doing the dishes). So maybe for you I help with the dishes and for my sister I make her her favorite lunch. Who are you talking to? What are your typical non-verbal communication styles? See Rory’s post here for more on non-verbal communication. 
  • When you don’t get it right the first time, try again. Because when words aren’t enough when you keep trying, you are showing that you are here for them with your actions as much as any words could say.

Kirsten Schowalter is the author of In My Own Skin and the founder of Aging Courageously.

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