The right thing to say

I went to talk to a group of volunteer counsellors about infertility at the weekend – they wanted to learn more in order to help the people they see who are having difficulty conceiving.  These weren’t BICA fertility counsellors, but volunteers who offer service through a charity in Sussex. Our discussion covered everything from the biological clock to the postcode lottery for IVF treatment, but one thing they particularly wanted to know more about was what not to say to people who had fertility problems.

We ran through all those cliches that set your teeth on edge – “why don’t you try to relax?”, “have you thought about adoption?”, “not everyone can be blessed with a baby”, “maybe if you went on holiday/bought a dog/stopped trying…” and covered the couple who everyone knows who got found themselves pregnant the moment they’d adopted/given up on treatment/gone to live in Outer Mongolia. I know you’ve all been there…

Anyway, I realised we’d done that bit quite successfully, but then one of them asked what they should say, and it struck me how much more difficult a question that is.  It’s partly that everyone is different and what’s the right thing to say to one person isn’t always the right thing to say to another (wrong things tend to be more universal…), but I realised it’s also far harder to pin down the things that people say that make you feel better. I think for me – and this is what I suggested to them – in the end, it’s empathy that counts. And empathy not sympathy as there’s nothing worse than other people’s pity when you can’t conceive.

The people who helped me on my journey were those who asked how things were, who didn’t studiously avoid the subject but who were understanding enough to stop probing when I didn’t want to talk, people who weren’t afraid to show their kindness or thoughtfulness. I think sometimes people can become so worried about saying the wrong thing that they stop saying anything at all. Of course, the people who can help and support you most along your journey are usually those who’ve been there themselves, but I’d love to know your thoughts on this.  Has anyone said anything that helped you along the way? What kinds of things have you found most supportive? And do you have any suggestions I could pass on to the volunteer counsellors that might help them in the future?

8 thoughts on “The right thing to say

  1. Listening rather than talking most important. Acknowledging feelings but refraining from offering advice. Tuning in to the person with the difficulty and taking your cues from them. Basically just being there for them as and when they need you. Less is more.

    • Thanks for commenting – you are absolutely right about the listening and we did discuss this a lot during the session. Tuning into the person talking to you and taking cues from them is very good advice. And I like your “less is more” thought too…

  2. Great article Kate & it’s so useful that you’ve highlighted the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is bad, empathy is good and it’s about connecting with the emotion that the person is feeling, and not trying to fix it. Because you can’t fit it This really short video explains it really well.
    I would say that the most important thing is not to offer advice. As Olivia says, less is more, listening and giving the person space and time, just being with them is the most helpful thing you can do. You could also use stories or parallels to say – for example ‘I know of someone in a similar situation and this is what helped them…’
    In NLP and the work I do we believe that the client knows all the answers, so if they’re stuck then some gentle questioning or brainstorming to encourage them to think of different options they have/things they could do can be really helpful.

  3. I really recommend the book “Fertile thinking” by Anya Sizer which I found really helpful. It focused on being as whole and as much yourself as possible through an incredibly difficult period, trying to stay aware that there is more than one positive outcome. It helped me look after myself and find a bit more happiness where I was rather than living in the future all the time. My favourite quote from it was; it will be alright in the end, and if it isn’t alright, it isn’t the end.

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