When you go to hear your brother's band play a terrible, eardrum-assaulting show:

"You guys had great energy!" Thumbs up. Big smile. Next time remember the earplugs.

When your partner says he wants to quit his job:

"Do you want to go for a walk?" Sometimes it's easier to talk things through when you're not sitting there staring at each other, and sometimes just the sheer, simple animal action of moving forward helps your mind-gears to chug forward, too. Is your husband feeling stuck in his job, stalled in his career, unable to work through a major life-puzzle? This is not a conversation to have while stuck in a diner booth or kitchen chair. What you need is a long, winding walk through the world.

When you see a long-lost high school buddy and she's lost a ton of weight:

"It's so great to see you. How have you been?"—with a smile. For it is just way too easy to go wrong here. "Whoa, you look so great!" sounds like a compliment, looks like a compliment, smells like a compliment, implies the opposite, You used to not look great. If someone has been working hard to drop pounds, she will appreciate the opportunity to discuss the change. If someone is dealing with an unfortunate medical condition, this gives her a chance to share, if she is so inclined. Because after all, you don't know what's really going on. A friend of mine suffered a terrible breakup, became depressed, couldn't eat and lost weight, only to have people say,"Wow, you look so great! What did you do?"

When someone tells you she's given up:

"I know you're feeling hopeless, and to ask you to feel hopeful is too much." This is a two-parter, are you ready? Because then you must say, "Let me carry your hope for you." And then, friend, you must actually do it.

Amy Shearn is the author of The Mermaid of Brooklyn: A Novel

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