Monday, July 16, 2012

Platitudes–Life Saving or Life Draining?

A colleague of mine issued a personal cry for help on social media over the weekend.  It wasn’t an obvious one – he is too proud for that and hasn’t learned that there is nothing wrong with asking for help.  However, it wasn’t too difficult to read the signals contained within his posts.

Given the nature of his request, it was the responses that he received that struck me and it made me realize this:

If you are ever seeking additions to your collection of clichés and platitudes, hover around the social media watering holes where people are asking for help.

You’ll find everything you need there.

The sad part is that people don’t realize that offering up a “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” or a “things can only get better” doesn’t help someone in need.  In fact, when Life is squeezing someone hard, the “go get ‘ems” are as likely to drag them deeper into that which mires them down as they are to lift someone up.

Yes, they can help someone feel like they’re not alone but that isn’t always enough.

Sometimes the person in trouble is in so deep that they can’t “hear you” and needs more than pithy platitudes.

How do I know?

Because I was there once.  And at that point in my Life when I thought the bottom was falling out, the platitudes around thinking positive and such weren’t resonating.  Perhaps if I hadn’t fallen so deeply into my self-analysis, self-doubt and self-criticism, wondering how I had arrived at the situation in question, then the “words of wisdom” may have meant more to me.

However, I had long passed the point of those words meaning anything and many of them left me feeling cynical at the time, having helped so many people in my years and seeing that the best that they could come back with was a “you’re smart, you’ll figure it out”.

It’s not until one has been pulled from the mire that one realizes that there is truth in the words.  But we also learn through experience that the power and truth in those words of inspiration can only really be understood by someone after they have survived the gauntlet that was dragging them down. 

Having overcome our challenges, we also know better than to casually hurl the same phrases at others.  We know that if the other person is feeling crushed, they may not feel the power in the words that we intended them to feel when we so cavalierly tossed out encouragement in a tweet or a Facebook message.

In my situation, it took a combination of hard work, luck and the help of others to get out of it.

That’s the way Life is – anyone who says that they turned their Life around without the help of others is lying or deluded.

That’s not to say that we can, should or must help everyone.  There are many times that we can’t or we shouldn’t, based on many factors unique to every individual and situation.

However, if the person in trouble really needs help, you want to help and you are able to help, don’t offer an off-the-cuff “I’ll keep you in my thoughts and prayers” or some other collection of words that help you feel that your two-second drive-by inspiration has fulfilled your obligation.

That’s like yelling out to the drowning man that being alone in the water and feeling like he’s drowning is the best way for him to learn how to swim.

Sometimes what is most important is a helping hand and not a demonstration of your mastery of clichés.

If you have really “been there and won”, then you know this already.

Someone you know (or maybe don’t know) is waiting for a hand-up today (not a handout).

What are you waiting for?

In service and servanthood,


PS As I wrote this, I received a news alert that Stephen Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and many other influential works, has passed away at age 79.  His impact on many, including myself, is deep and profound.  He will definitely be missed.

I was deeply impacted by his rules for living – the 4 L’s: to live, to love, to learn and to leave a legacy.

How can one go wrong with such a formula?

Addendum: July 26, 2012

My cliché for the day:

That which doesn’t kill you causes you to spout clichés.

I couldn’t resist! :-)


  1. Excellent column. Very true.
    Unless you have been "there" and have experienced the internal hollowness that comes with staring into an abyss of despair with now apparent way out - it is difficult to understand how platitudes hurt more than help. They actually begin to give the message that if you can't 'pull yourself up by the bootstraps' and 'just do it' because 'this too shall pass' - then there is something WRONG with you. You are FAILING. Not great messages for someone at the bottom of Despair Gulch.

    "How can I help you? What can I do? Do you just want to talk it out?" is one of the most welcomed offers one can hear. We all feel pressure to offer solutions - but how can we help others when most of us are wrestling with problems/challenges of our own?

    TALKING is many times the first step to DOING. LISTENING is really the first step to HELPING.

    Oh - and one other thing. Those who are talking are not looking for you to pull out analogous experiences from your life. (Full disclosure - I am guilty of offering unsolicited personal stories when people are sharing. I'm working on curbing that impulse).

    THEY WANT TO TALK. As friends and supporters - WE NEED TO LISTEN. Once those two things happen - movement ... positive movement... can happen.

  2. Christopher,

    This is a powerful response - thank you for sharing it.

    I agree with you 200%. :-)

    I took a leadership course many years ago where we were paired off and each were asked to share a personal challenge with the other person. The person listening was NOT allowed to offer help of any kind, not allowed to comment, not allowed to offer perspective, not allowed to utter a peep until the person sharing the challenge had finished.

    When the speaking person was finished, the person listening was asked to give back the story. Not their perception of it, not how to solve it, or anything like that ... just the original story.

    To do so took careful listening and zero talking as we were listening.

    It was a powerful lesson for me. As I listened to my project partner, I kept wanting to jump in with comments and observations as they were talking. I was aching to do so as many of us would be.

    However, I learned that the real help that they needed could only be revealed if I shut up and listened ... to see what the true nature of the request would be as opposed to my understanding of what I thought they needed.

    And having done so, I heard their request ... and understood the action required of me.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Christopher. I am grateful for them.

    Create a great day!