Can you offer more than Thoughts and Prayers?

What to say - and not say - when tragedy occurs

Whenever tragedy strikes – as it did this last weekend with the terrorist mass shooting attack in Orlando, Florida – elected officials, candidates, and other public figures are quick to get before a camera or post to social media that their “thoughts and prayers” are with the families of the victims.  Is that the appropriate thing to say?

can-you-offer-more-than-thoughts-prayers

I don’t think so.

Be careful not to misunderstand what I’m saying.  The victims of any tragedy definitely deserve and are in need of our prayers to help comfort them during such a time of immeasurable grief and loss.

However, offering one’s “thoughts and prayers” has become the default phrase in our society when a painful and senseless tragedy occurs.  Look at the public statements following the terrorist attacks of the last few years in Boston, Fort Hood, and San Bernardino.  The Twitter stream was full of “thoughts and prayers.”

The same words were everywhere following the mass shootings in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater, Sandy Hook Elementary School, and the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston a year ago.

You’ll also find them any time a police officer, fire fighter, or member of our military loses their life in the line of duty.  “Thoughts and prayers” will also be offered to the families of any person of public significance who dies like Muhammad Ali, Prince, or Antonin Scalia. The same is true when a natural disaster like an earthquake, hurricane, wild fire, flood, tornado, or tsunami wreck havoc and devastation.

Offering one’s “thoughts and prayers” to anyone suffering from the loss of a loved one has become the default for public figures when making statements on any tragedy.

Becoming a default, the words have become routine. Since they are now routine, they’ve lost their depth of meaning.  They don’t come across as heartfelt or sincere.  They seem canned and compulsory.

Saying you are giving someone your “thoughts and prayers” has become about as hollow as saying “God bless you” after someone sneezes.  You know you’re supposed to say something when someone sneezes, and our society has trained us to say either “God bless you” or “bless you” when it happens.

But are you really wishing blessings on the sneezer?  Of course not.  You’re only saying something because it’s a societal norm to say something when you hear a sneeze.

The same is true for elected officials and candidates when a tragedy happens.  You know you’re supposed to say something to convey your empathy to the victims and to demonstrate the tragedy has not been lost on you.  “Thoughts and prayers” are obviously the first thing that comes to mind.

But if you really are attempting to demonstrate your compassion and genuine regard for those dealing with the real, personal grief of a tragedy, couldn’t you convey it with something more than the default “thoughts and prayers?”

Absolutely.

When making a statement on a tragedy I advise my clients to avoid the term “thoughts and prayers” altogether.  They need to say something more heartfelt and not as routine in their public remarks and social media posts.

My Guidelines for Statements in the Wake of Tragedies

1. You Should Say Something

When there’s a tragedy in your community, in our nation, or in the world, as a leader you need to say something.  Your constituents will notice if you don’t. It’s important that you make some sort of a comment so that you are seen as not only knowing what’s going on, but that you have a conscience.

It’s important for the people you represent, or seek to represent, to have you speak for them in such difficult and heart wrenching moments.

2. It’s Not About You

Never take someone else’s tragedy and make it about you.  It’s not about you even if it has a deep impact on your community.  It’s about them.  Keep the focus on the victim/victims and their family/families.  They are they ones hurting and grieving. While the news of the tragedy may emotionally affect you, if doesn’t personally affect you as it does those who have lost a loved one, don’t make your statement about you.

Show empathy not opportunism.  That is unless you want people to view you with distaste, which I assume you don’t

3.  Don’t Be Political

When a tragedy strikes your statement needs to be apolitical.  The politics may come in certain circumstances, but not immediately thereafter.  The focus in the first hours and days following a tragedy must be the victims. It’s the victims you need to be concerned about, not moving the political ball or scoring points against your opponent.

In the aftermath of the terrorist shootings in Orlando and San Bernardino, many of America’s candidates and elected officials failed to keep politics out of their statements.  It made them look callow and crass.  Some Republicans politically went after all Muslims.  Some Democrats went after the Second Amendment.

Both ignored the fact that while the vast majority of American Muslims and American gun owners don’t launch mass shooting attacks against innocent people as happened in Orlando, San Bernardino, and Chattanooga.

The candidates and elected officials who went political failed to keep the focus victims.  They made it about their political agenda.  Sure some of their supporters cheered them on, but in the end I don’t see it helping any candidate’s agenda.  That’s because in the end it makes them look like typical politicians.  That’s not a label you want to be branded with.

4.  Use Words other than “Thoughts and Prayers”

If you want to show yourself to be a leader who has empathy for people, especially the victims of a tragedy, leave the words “thoughts and prayers” out of your statements.  Yes, you can offer your prayers or encourage others to pray, but stay away from the phrase that everyone else says.  Say something original and heartfelt if you can.  People will respect you more for it.

Here are a few phrases you can incorporate into or use as inspiration for any statement you may sadly have to make during your political career:

I offer my sincere condolences…

My heart breaks for the loss….

Please pray for the victims of….

My Final Thoughts on “Thoughts & Prayers”

Whenever I hear an elected official offer their “thoughts and prayers” I cringe.  I don’t feel like they mean it.  It’s part of the problem in today’s America.  We’ve allowed ourselves to become numb to almost every kind of senseless tragedy that occurs.  Our leaders are no exception.

Our communities need leaders who sincerely do care. We need leaders who can offer more than empty platitudes to those hurting from an unimaginable loss.  We need leaders who can speak from the heart and put into words what their constituents are feeling.  We need leaders who can comfort us when the world makes no sense whatsoever, then lead us as we work together to make a better world.

Is that you?  Are you that leader?  I hope so, because your community and our country desperately need such leadership.