Stop Being Awkward. Start Saying the Right Thing.

by Gretchen Rubin
Originally Published: 
1. Acknowledge people’s unique roles in your life

My very favorite parenting book (its principles apply equally to adults) is Faber and Mazlish’s How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. (I also love their book Siblings Without Rivalry.) How to Talk has a terrific section about dealing with a child who says “You love Joe more than me!” The authors point out that the answer “I love you both equally” isn’t satisfying because we all want to be loved uniquely. Instead, the authors tell a story to give an example from the adult context:

When a wife turned to her husband and said, “Whom do you love more? Your mother or me?” she didn’t want to hear him say, “I love you both the same.” Instead he said, “My mother is my mother. You’re the fascinating, sexy woman I want to spend the rest of my life with.” Good answer!

2. Help give perspective

A few days before my wedding, I was in high-anxiety mode about all the details and all the opportunities for disaster. (Among other things, I was very preoccupied with the fear that my veil would come off my head during the ceremony. Have you ever heard of this happening?) My mother listened patiently for a while, then observed, “The things that go wrong often make the best memories.” This instantly comforted me.

3. Empower others to find their own truth

In Piers Anthony’s fantasy novel, A Spell for Chameleon, the character Bink despairs because he doesn’t know what kind of magic he possesses. To learn the answer, he goes to the Good Magician Humpfrey, who will answer a question in exchange for a year’s servitude. While there, Bink meets a manticora who is almost at the end of its service:

“What question did you bring?” Bink asked.

“I asked whether I have a soul,” the monster said seriously.

“What did he tell you?”

“That only those who possess souls are concerned about them.”

“But—but then you never needed to ask. You paid a year for nothing.”

“No. I paid a year for everything … A simple yes or no answer would not have satisfied me; it could be a blind guess, or merely the Magician’s off-hand opinion. A detailed technical treatise would merely have obfuscated the matter. Humfrey phrased it in such a way that its truth was self-evident. Now I need never doubt again.”

4. Recognize mountains vs. molehills

My husband and I were working on a project with several other people. After we all received a certain email, one person meant to forward the group message just to my husband and me, with a critical comment about it. Alas, he made the classic mistake and hit “reply all.” He sent a nice note to the people who might’ve been annoyed, and then sent another note to us to lament what had happened. My husband sent back what seemed to me to be a simple and perfect response: “We’ve all done it.”

When I thought about why I found these answers so deeply satisfying, I realized they shared certain qualities. For one thing, it’s important to acknowledge the reality of other people’s feelings. “Don’t be silly” or “It’s all going to be fine” denies that a person is feeling worried. Regardless of whether or not a person “should” be worried, at this given moment, he or she is. Along the same lines, these replies don’t argue that a person’s concern is unfounded. Hearing “Oh, it doesn’t matter” isn’t very comforting when you’re feeling anxious. An open, sympathetic ear and perspective is what someone is often looking for in all of these cases.

To read more by Gretchen Rubin, visit her site.

This article was originally published on