Communication is an art. This is especially true in counseling and psychotherapy, where effective communication is critical. A well-chosen word can establish a therapeutic relationship. Words help establish rapport, demonstrate empathy, and build trust.
In short, what a therapist says matters.
And this is also true for the average person as well. Especially in relationships, where healthy and effective communication is often the difference between breakups and a love that lasts a lifetime.
Of course, not all words are created equal, and poorly chose words can stop a session dead in its tracks. So let’s talk about the dangers of using dumb platitudes, why they are so annoying and dumb, and what to say instead.
What Are Platitudes?
Here is the generally agreed-upon definition of “platitude” according to Merriam-Webster:
Platitude: 1. the quality or state of being dull or insipid. 2. a banal, trite, or stale remark.Merriam-Webster
Here’s a lesser well-known from the author Tim Lawrence. His is not universally accepted, but I think he makes his point quite nicely:
A platitude is cheap. It’s a throwaway statement, one well-meaning people use when they don’t know what else to say. It’s not that people who use them are heartless, but platitudes have a way of angering those on the receiving end. They don’t build trust, nor do they demonstrate empathy. Most people think they are useless placeholders.
Dumb Platitudes are not always a problem in everyday conversations. If you’re chatting with the checkout girl, use them to your heart’s content. But in an emotional session, where a client is grieving or depressed, platitudes are just straight-up offensive. They are condescending, silly, and reductive.
Don’t use them. Not once. Not ever. Clients will just dismiss them and perhaps even get angry.
10 Examples of Dumb Platitudes
You’ve heard every example on this list, but that’s kinda the point. Like a cliche, they are unoriginal and offer nothing new. They are empty. They are banal. They are what people say when they have no idea what else to say. They are so dumb that the phrase “dumb platitudes” is redundant.
Sometimes silence is the best option in psychotherapy. A poorly-voiced platitude is a therapeutic equivalent of burping at the dinner table. If you want to help, it’s a good idea to avoid them, because platitudes, by definition, are not helpful.
What follows are ten of the worst offenders, with sample responses meant to simulate how an upset client might react to them. The responses I’ve added are absurd. But then again, dumb platitudes are absurd, too.
1. “Everything Happens For A Reason.”
Absolute statements are almost always wrong, so right off the bat, we see a platitude that is based on a cognitive distortion. It assumes that free will doesn’t exist, and that meaning can be found in every terrible thing that happens.
RESPONSE: Do shark attacks happen for a reason? Do cholera outbreaks happen for a reason? Is there a good reason my child died? Is that supposed to make me feel better?
2. “It Is What It Is.”
This is a nonsense statement. It implies we are powerless to change our circumstances. Do you suppose that sentiment is a good idea to promote in a therapy session? And more importantly, how do dumb platitudes like this one facilitate change or strengthen the therapeutic relationship?
RESPONSE: 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. “Good Things Come To Those Who Wait”
This is another nonsense lie, and thus easily disproved. Sometimes great things happen to impulsive people. Sometimes good things never come no matter how long you wait. And what, exactly, is the relationship between wait-time and the relative goodness of a thing?
Are you starting to see now why platitudes are so stupid?
Yes, this statement does have a positive side to it. Ir’s extolling the virtues of patience. I get that. It’s just that it’s not always true.
But one of the big problems with a statement like “good things come to those who wait” is that it doesn’t encourage action. And action is necessary for change.
RESPONSE: So… what? I just wait for my cancer to get cured? I just wait for my child to do better in school, or for my wife to not leave me?
4. “Time Heals All Wounds.”
This one is technically kind of true, but it’s not exactly reassuring, especially to someone who has lost a loved one or been through a divorce. As with so many other dumb platitudes, it suggests that there is nothing we can do about our present situation. And again I say that this is a foolish idea to promote in therapy, the whole purpose of which is to affect change.
The fact is, trauma has a way of changing people. Go through a bad divorce or lose a child or survive sexual abuse and you’ll question whether or not time does, in fact, heal all wounds.
I suppose it depends on what you mean be “heal” and also what you define as a “wound.” If an experience alters who you are, do you ever really heal from it?
RESPONSE: That may be the case, but my wife has left me and right now it feels like I will never ever survive this.
5. “When God Closes a Door, He Opens a Window”
If you are speaking to a person of faith, then this one might not be a disaster. It might actually help a client to adjust their point of view. Just don’t assume that everyone believes in God. Or that everyone finds assurance with this sentiment.
Clients with substance abuse issues are quite likely to be enraged by dumb platitudes like this one. People don’t come into recovery when everything is going fine. Usually they have either lost everything or facing the threat of losing everything. Often they are openly hostile to God, as many feel as if they have been abandoned by Him.
While it’s nice to be positive and hopeful about the future, there are better ways to do it.
RESPONSE: If God was actually on my side, he wouldn’t have made me go through this in the first place.
6. Love Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
This one might just be the most counter-productive and stupid platitude on this list. Of COURSE people who love one another can be wrong about things. Of COURSE it’s a good idea to say you’re sorry.
How long will any relationship will last if neither party ever says they are sorry? Dumb platitudes like this one are poisonous to interpersonal relationships.
RESPONSE: Then clearly you have never been married because this statement is absolutely false. If I never apologized to my wife she would kill me.
7. “There are Plenty Of Fish in the Sea”
The obvious problem with this one is the false equivalence going on there. Comparing fish to a romantic partner is just silly.
As is often the case with platitudes, the sentiment is…. okay I guess. Yes, relationships come and go, and if one ends there are plenty of others from which to choose. It’s just that there are far better ways to go about saying that.
RESPONSE: Sure, but if I can’t catch them, what good does it do for me?
8. “Just Think About How Much Worse Other People Have It”
This one assumes that human suffering is a competition. That somehow knowing that other people suffer makes are suffering less intense. It’s a sentiment that is condescending, disrespectful, and thoughtless. It has no place, ever, in a therapy session.
RESPONSE: How does worrying about other people’s problems in any way solve mine?
9. It Doesn’t Matter If You Win or Lose. It Only Matters That You Tried
This one assumes that the point is to win or lose. Life is not a game, nor should it be treated as such. The problem with this one is that it is dismissive and reductive. And in situations where the concept of winning and losing is valid, it actually does matter whether you win or lose. To suggest otherwise is naive.
RESPONSE: Of course it matters if you win or lose! This isn’t a T-Ball game. This is my life we’re talking about.
10. What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us Stronger
Another platitude that is sometimes true, but often false. Trauma and abuse can ruin people.
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Yes, we can learn how to grow from bad experiences, but this is not always the case. Consider a client who is facing terminal cancer. Would you say this to them?
RESPONSE: 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?
What To Say Instead of Using Dumb Platitudes
In typical interpersonal relationships, platitudes are at best a mild annoyance. In therapy, they are at best unproductive and often 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 a 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, counselors are not supposed to fix problems, nor are we expected to have all the answers.
Our role is to offer unconditional positive regard. Platitudes undermine and subvert our ability to do this.
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This isn’t an exhaustive list of platitudes. There are times when their use is helpful in social situations, though I am loath to think of any. Perhaps there is.
But remember: communication is an art, and art has little use for banality.
Carl Rogers said there were three essential “ingredients” in a therapeutic relationship.
The first is “unconditional positive regard,” meaning that you show your support by affirming a client’s self-worth.
The second is “genuineness,” meaning that you are the person you are presenting to the client.
The third is “empathy,” which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Platitudes minimize the very real anguish that the client feels. They are cliche and thus disingenuous. And platitudes are about as empathetic as wet cardboard.
The bottom line is this — we can do better, and we should. Because our clients matter in ways that platitudes can never express.