Communication is an art. This is especially true in counseling, where effective communication is paramount to the development of a therapeutic relationship. We must be able to establish a rapport, demonstrate empathy and build trust if we are to accomplish anything. Our primary tools are our words, which is why it is so important that we be careful how we use them. Sometimes, it is not what you say but what you do not say that matters.
Merriam-Webster defines a Platitude as:
1. the quality or state of being dull or insipid
2. a banal, trite, or stale remark
A platitude is cheap. It’s a throw away statement, one well-meaning people use when they don’t know what else to say. It’s not that people who use them are dull or unoriginal or heartless, but platitudes have a way of angering those on the receiving end. They neither establish trust, help with rapport, nor do they demonstrate empathy, because most people have already heard them and they find them completely useless.
Platitudes may not be “bad” in everyday situations, but when people are emotionally charged or grieving or depressed, they can be nothing short of incendiary.
What Are Some Examples of Platitudes?
You will most likely recognize every single example on the following list, and that is precisely the point. Like a cliché, they offer nothing new to a conversation. They are what people say when they have no idea what to say. Where silence should have lease, platitudes often enter the fray, disrupting what is an otherwise effective session.
For the sake of argument, I’ve listed the following 10 Platitudes (P) and what the potential response (PR) might be from an emotionally charged client. If your intention is to help, it is a good idea to avoid these at all costs. My responses are exaggerated, but meant to simulate how an upset client might react. Here are some examples:
1. (P) Everything Happens For A Reason
(PR) Really? Do shark attacks happen for a reason? Do Cholera outbreaks happen for a reason? If there is a reason, what exactly is that reason? How does this help me at all?
2. (P) It Is What It Is
(PR) No, it’s not. If that were true, I might as well give up. Because what you are saying is that I have no control over the situation, so why bother to try?
3. (P) Good Things Come To Those Who Wait
(PR) No they don’t. Not always. There’s absolutely no proof whatsoever that this is true. Why are you even telling me that?
4. (P) Time Heals All Wounds
(PR) Are you kidding me? What if I lost my leg in a car accident? How long do you suppose it would take to heal that?
5. (P) When God Closes a Door, He Opens a Window
(PR) What does that even mean? How is that supposed to be helpful in any way whatsoever?
6. (P) Love Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
(PR) Then clearly you have never been married, because this statement is absolutely false.
7. (P) There are Plenty More Fish in the Sea
(PR) Yes, but we are talking about a relationship here, which has nothing to do with fishing. What, exactly, is your point?
8. (P) Just Think About How Much Worse Other People Have It
(PR) Why would I do that? How does worrying about other people’s problems in any way solve mine?
9. (P) It Doesn’t Matter If You Win or Lose. It Only Matters That You Tried
(PR) Of course it matters if you win or lose. This isn’t a t-Ball game. This is my life we are talking about.
10. (P) What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us Stronger
(PR) I was abused by my parents since I was a baby, but that has somehow made me stronger? Was that why they abused me do you think? To make me stronger? Was that their plan all along do you think?
What To Say Instead
In typical interpersonal relationships, platitudes are at best a mild annoyance. In therapy, they are at best unproductive and perhaps even harmful. If you find yourself in a difficult session, don’t be afraid to fall back on your training. Use your Active Listening skills. Paraphrase, summarize, reflect. Ask open ended questions. Don’t be afraid to use silence. In casual conversations, silence can be awkward. In therapy, it can be powerful. Rather than filling the space with empty words, let the silence speak for you instead. Use it as time to reflect. Use it to enhance the sense of immediacy.
If you don’t know what to say, it’s okay to tell a client that you don’t have the words. Remember, as Counselors, it is not our job to fix problems, nor are we expected to have all the answers. Our role is to offer unconditional positive regard. Offering platitudes has a way of undermining this.
This is not an exclusive list of platitudes. Perhaps there are times when their use would be effective, though I cannot think of any. Perhaps there is. But communication is an art, and true art has little use for banality.