09/08/2013 06:05 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2013

Saying the Right Thing

Job, that famously unfortunate fellow of the Old Testament and the Quran, dealt with all sorts of disasters. His “friends” appear repeatedly to tell the upright and virtuous Job how his own moral failings are the reason for the mighty wind that caused his house to collapse upon his children, the marauders who carried of his livestock and so forth.

Job’s friends are themselves one of the most striking misfortunes he endures.

When people are coping with a difficult situation, even today, Job’s friends continue to show up and make it worse. So I offer this modest guide of ways you can avoid being one of them.

What to say to a parent whose child is having a tantrum

This is no time to offer parenting advice. Talking about how you discipline your own children, your views on the amount of sugar a toddler should be allowed and so on — that all falls into the Job’s Friends Zone. You’re implying that the tantrum is the result of the parent's failure, when in fact every child has tantrums at some time.

Instead, simply offer some empathy: “I’ve been there. I hope your day gets better.”

What to say to a person panhandling

Telling the person to get a job is patently ridiculous. People with networks of colleagues — not to mention the right interview clothes — struggle to get jobs these days. Furthermore, a sidewalk sermon is unlikely to turn around someone’s life.

The worst thing you can do is to say nothing and avoid eye contact. You would acknowledge a human being in a suit who spoke to you on the street. A human being in shabby clothes deserves the same consideration.

Whether you want to give cash or not is up to you. I'll tell you from experience that when you say: “I’m sorry. I can’t today,” the most common reaction is a warm smile usually followed by something like, “That’s okay. You have a wonderful day.”

What to say to a person working with oppressed people

A friend of mine who worked in a soup kitchen was constantly asked. “Do you think the people who come in really need it?” She always answered: “Not at all, they come for the ambiance of eating off a metal tray in a basement.”

When you imply that the people your friend is helping are undeserving, you are basically calling your friend a fool. Friends shouldn’t call friends fools.

Instead I’d suggest: “I appreciate the work you do to make our community a better place.” Even better: “How can I help?”

What to say to a teacher

We’ve all read statistics that show what’s wrong with education. That being said, it's my observation that most classroom teachers are good people who care about kids and are dealing with a constellation of issues that stretch far beyond their classrooms.

A teacher does not want to hear a diatribe on “what’s wrong with schools today” any more than you want to hear a recitation of what’s wrong with your own job performance. But if you are concerned about the state of education, by all means do say something.

A good suggestion is: “I know that teachers deal with a great many issues with limited resources. Is there anything I can do as a volunteer to be helpful?”

What to say to a sick person

“Be sure to keep that positive attitude!” Ugh. No one expects you to have a positive attitude when you’ve got the flu. Why should you have one when you have cancer? The implication is that attitude is the key to overcoming the disease. That puts a world of pressure on a person with plenty to deal with already. When a friend is diagnosed with a serious illness, it is also a bad time to tell them about your own health problems. True story: A friend about to undergo a double mastectomy spent 20 minutes on the phone listening to a relative complain about bunion surgery.

Here’s what most people would rather hear: “I’m sorry you’re going through this. Let me know if I can prepare a meal for your family or help out chauffeuring the kids around.”

Job, by the way, had a relatively happy ending, with much of his former prosperity and good health restored. We should wish the same for everyone who faces challenges. Above all, we should offer them empathy — not judgment.