Home News Silence vs words – talking about difficult issues…

Rebecca Dillon

Silence vs words – talking about difficult issues…


Let’s talk about international conflicts, terminal illness and bereavement.

At this point many of us may already be lost for words. What do we say? How should we respond?  When to address an issue and when to keep quiet? When we know of or are met with someone who is dealing with the above issues I’m guessing that quite a few of us may, at some point, have been stuck for words.

At Commonweal we regularly deal with and talk about difficult issues, about individuals or groups facing hardship. We do this because we want to help, we want to take action, and we do. In fact as a charity communications professional, I do this for a living.

What I want to address in this blog however is the worry about saying the right thing, in the day to day, when talking about difficult issues is not so easy.

Bereavement is one example. A friend of mine recently found out that a close family member had sadly died in a conflict situation. Of course there were many things I could have said, none of which seemed appropriate, so I opted to give the friend space and to back away. But I find myself questioning was this because I wasn’t brave enough to ask more, not knowing what best to say, or because I really had the person’s best interest at heart. Of course I want to believe it was mainly due to the latter.

Looking online, an article about the grieving process in Psychology Today advises “A simple, heartfelt acknowledgment of a griever’s pain will help the griever feel supported and understood.” Sounds like sensible advice.

Discussing illness, especially terminal illness is often seen as another complex issue to address. Outside of Commonweal, one of my other hats is working for cancer support charity Macmillan. The charity offers support for people dealing with cancer, both those with the illness, and the family and friends affected. People affected by cancer don’t always feel they are able to talk to those close to them. Family and friends on the other side don’t always find it easy to know what the best thing to say is. As one solution, Macmillan offers a telephone helpline with trained professionals, who not only have the right advice but know how to talk about it and how best to respond.

One user of the support line says “‘I have spoken to you a few times and am very grateful for all the help, support and clear information I get each time I call. Just being able to talk to someone makes such a difference.”

And the last issue I mentioned above – speaking about conflict situations. I once found myself in a room at the British Red Cross as part of their Tracing and Messaging service. The service works to re-unite families with loved ones lost in wars and conflicts abroad. On talking about the son she had left behind, the lady who had come to see us began to cry. I learnt a great deal from my colleague who was able to console, allow the lady to grieve and steer her to answering questions that would allow the service to try and locate her son, all in the same short meeting.

Whether personal or professional, discussing difficult and sometimes taboo subjects can be tricky. So I hope, whilst reading this blog, you have also decided that although not always easy, saying nothing is not the solution either. Let’s try our best to talk about the difficult issues.


Ambreen Ahmad
Communications Coordinator

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Top blog image © Eastfest 2012 @ Zemplínska Širava