Knowing how to connect with people in different life situations can be enormously valuable for building your network and your business.

If you say the right thing at the right time, you can turn a stranger into a loyal customer. Your elevator speech with a prospect can develop into a home presentation. A customer can become a powerful source of new business through word-of-mouth referrals.

What about those key moments in life when a business relationship suddenly turns personal? The moments I am talking about are those conversation-stoppers when someone unexpectedly reveals a tragedy. A stranger tells you his son was killed in a motorcycle accident. Your new client reveals that her husband just left her. Your business partner has cancer. These moments can catch us by surprise and leave us speechless or confused about what to say next.

However you respond in those moments, your words will be remembered. If you are unprepared, your words can totally miss the mark and an opportunity to connect. Handled correctly, these situations allow you to reveal your true character and make a friend for life.

I know this from personal experience. When my thirty-three-year-old husband died suddenly, many well-educated people became completely tongue-tied or said things that weren’t helpful at all.

There is a three-step process for communicating with someone in emotional crisis, whether triggered by divorce, death, disease or another loss or challenge.

1. Listen without Fixing

Listening is the oldest and perhaps the most powerful tool of healing. When we listen with compassion, our attention creates an opportunity for healing. Or as one of my favorite authors, Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. expressed it in Kitchen Table Wisdom, “Our listening creates sanctuary for the homeless parts within the other person.”

2. Acknowledge the Situation

Many people make the mistake of ignoring the “elephant in the room.” When my husband died, my four-year-old son would not enter anyone’s home without first announcing, “My dad is dead.” Once that enormous fact was acknowledged, my son felt “seen.” He could now enter the house and play. We can all learn from the innocent directness of children. It is important to acknowledge the situation.

3. Give Hope

People in crisis need hope. Despair is like a wind that snuffs out the light at the end of the tunnel. With hope, there is the energy to face the challenge. Knowing that someone else has triumphed over a similar situation gives hope, energy and inspiration. Sharing stories of hope and energetically holding the hand of others confronted by loss will reassure them that they, too, can overcome heartbreak and find happiness.

In addition to knowing what to do, we need to know what not to do. Here are the seven most common mistakes and how to avoid them.

1. Don’t Fix

Many people immediately go into problem-solving mode. Instead of trying to fix things, just be present. For example, do not tell someone dealing with death or divorce, “You’re young—you can find another partner.” Well-meant as this comment may be, it is not helpful to someone with a broken heart.

2. Don’t Assume

Don’t say, “I know how you feel.” You don’t. Assuming you know how the other person feels shuts down authentic communication, which is the opposite of what you want to accomplish. Instead, say, “I can’t imagine how you feel.” That comment invites the person to share.

3. Don’t Compare

If someone shares that they have ovarian cancer, just listen. Don’t share your story of Aunt Mabel’s late husband’s experience with skin cancer. The only exception is if you have had ovarian cancer yourself. In that case, mention it briefly, give hope, then turn your focus back to listening.

4. Don’t Minimize

Never trivialize someone’s feelings or situation. Avoid the common saying, “It just takes time.” People suffer needlessly for decades because they believe this myth. Action is required. Appropriate action will bring relief, healing and peace of mind. Encourage people to get the support they need to accelerate their journey from loss to wholeness.

5. Don’t Maximize

Don’t increase the size of the problem by bringing up additional issues or pointing to new responsibilities that may arise from the loss in the future.

6. Don’t Be Inauthentic

Avoid saying “I’m sorry” unless you’re apologizing. Often, “I’m sorry” is an automatic response, and as such it shuts down authentic communication, which also shuts the door on your golden opportunity to truly connect. Communicate authentically. This creates a safe space so that the other person can be genuine. Be yourself. Be real. For instance, it’s fine to say, “I don’t know what to say,” if that is what you’re experiencing. Then listen. The biggest gift you can give is simply listening with compassion.

7. Don’t Interrogate

While it’s fine to ask simple, direct questions about facts, avoid asking direct questions about feelings. For instance, ask, “What happened?” or “How can I help?” or “What did the doctor say?” Encourage the other person to share, follow their lead, and don’t interrogate.

By avoiding these seven common pitfalls, you’ll be able to respond effectively in even the most challenging situations, avoid miscommunications and make lifelong friends. Remember to listen without fixing, acknowledge the situation and give hope. You’ll never be at a loss for words again!

AURORA WINTER is a speaker, Grief Recovery Counselor
and author of
From Heartbreak to Happiness: An Intimate Diary of Healing
For a free copy of Aurora’s book, visit