Beginning a Conversation With Someone Who is Struggling

So, you’ve decided you’re not going to make the mistake of doing nothing this time.  You’ve committed to reaching out and here is your chance:  Here is someone who is struggling and you want to be there for them.

Suddenly, your ideas come to a halt.  How in the world should you begin? Those old feelings of inadequacy are just waiting to crop back up.  Once again, you are worried that you will end up wishing you would have done something.

Begin With Hello

When we notice someone around us is struggling…

  • a friend has lost his job,
  • a workmate has cancer,
  • a neighbor’s spouse has just walked out,

…we may not be ready for grand gestures, but we can greet someone.

The very first little word is:  Hi.

Does hello really make a difference?

It can seem a little trite – just saying hi, without having any more insightful comments or an action plan.  Yet, struggles are isolating.  Without a job or after a funeral or housebound while caring for a loved one, our someone may not get out much.  Our simple greeting may be more unusual and fresh than it ever has been.

To confirm that hello makes a difference, try browsing on your device to see how many GIFs… and memes… and Pinterest collections… and support columns… and shared quotes… are all telegraphing the same appeal:  Please.don’

Elie Wiesel [Holocaust survivor] wrote,
“The opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s indifference.”

Indeed, being ignored can feel worse even than being rejected, making you feel as if you don’t matter at all.
— Psychology Today, Posted May 01, 2014, by Marty Nemko Ph.D.

Surely most of us know never to make fun of someone who is struggling.  But do we stop to consider that saying nothing can send a similar message?  I’ve had people confess to me that since the birth of their disabled child or since their divorce, they feel shunned.  They find themselves wondering whether others blame them for the events that have turned their lives upside-down.  Some worry their tears are unpleasant or their wounds are disgusting.  Others conclude that being out of the workforce makes them uninteresting.

Certain struggles feel especially isolating.  There are precious few greeting cards for psychiatric hospitalization or a suicide attempt.  Extra effort is not wasted in these cases.

Why is it hard to say hello?

It can seem intrusive, interrupting someone clearly struggling just for a bit of small talk.  Or, we may care so much that we don’t want to risk re-opening old wounds.  We can talk ourselves into all kinds of reasons to skip it.

Realistically, the person may look differently or act differently, and we don’t want to stare. Maybe it’s awkward because you don’t know the person well.  Or, you used to know them pretty well, but they seem changed.

Today we can also worry about offending someone by our efforts.  Stories and articles circulate about what not to say or the worst things to do.  In the back of our minds, we remember someone who set out to bless and instead sparked a public rant.

We can become fearful of our words, as well.  We try to keep track of saying people with disabilities, not the disabledOur elders is more respectful, we recall, than the elderly, but people over 70 would be ideal — we get stuck wondering how to fit the correct words into the sentence we had planned to say.

Efforts to improve communication and make gestures more meaningful are all well and good.  However, based on my experience, I’m going to be bold and say:  Don’t wait until you have time to do all the research.  Don’t get stuck.

We can all say hi.

Yes, you may end up embarrassed on occasion.  But even if you rate your results as a 1 on a scale of 1 to 10, you have still made it onto the scale; your effort is no longer at zero.  You have said hello rather than walking past.


How do you cross this first threshold and simply begin to communicate as you had hoped?

  • Try a quiet little wave.  If your gesture isn’t noticed, let go of any embarrassment.  You have made a start.
  • Lean in and say hi as you’re walking past, without committing to more.
  • Simply look directly at your someone and nod, smile, or mouth a hello.  Release any worries about whether your someone recognizes you, hears you, notices you, or understands your effort.
  • When accompanied by a caregiver, choose to greet your someone directly rather than turning to greet their companion — both will appreciate that.
  • Use a text or email or greeting card to send a quick hello.
  • A lighthearted effort can overcome awkwardness.  I’m not sure whether being silly is easier as I get older, or it could be my personality, but it’s a tactic that has worked for me in many situations.

Recently I was at an event and greeting several young women I knew when I realized I was leaving someone out.  I turned and said, Hi “Emily’s boyfriend.”  I should know your name, but I get mixed up.

He replied, Hi “Allie’s mom.”  We all had a laugh and one of the other gals chimed in with his name.  Problem solved.

Today is a holiday in the States. There may be lots of opportunities to just say Hello to someone who may not be hearing that a lot lately.  We can set out to make sure one person in our world does not feel shunned today.

We can offer a simple Hello.


***** Bonus for the Ambitious: *****

Learn hello in other languages.  By using the greetings at the top of this page, here are all the people you can greet:

  • HELLO (English) • BONJOUR (French) • HOLA (Spanish) • MERHABA (Turkish) • ZAO (Chinese=good morning) • GALAB WANAAGSAN (Somali=good afternoon) • KON’NICHIWA (Japanese) • NAMASTE (Hindi) • HALLO (Icelandic & Dutch) • GUTEN TAG (German) • ALOHA (Hawaiian) • NYOB ZOO (“nyah zong,” Hmong) • PRIVYET (Russian) • DOBRYJ DEN (Ukrainian) • SELAM (Amheric=Ethiopian)
  • Even more can be found at the Omniglot website.


Blog #12, COMMENT BELOW:  Have you had an experience where a simple hello brightened your day?

3 thoughts on “Beginning a Conversation With Someone Who is Struggling”

  1. Love this Julie….while I try to do this on a regular basis, when we traveled in Europe this became especially helpful to us and led to many wonderful experiences. And the French, English, even German people were very good at approaching us with the same intent…to connect and enjoy each other’s company.

    Liked by 1 person

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