One part of this is finding out which phrases can be easily misinterpreted. Part of this is about what not to say and why.
Phrase One: “So what?”
Someone is pouring out her heart to you about something kind of boring. A classmate said something stuck-up to her and now she’s almost in tears, and you don’t know why she’s so upset. You reply, “So what?” in the hopes of figuring out the situation, and rather than explaining, she becomes terribly angry.
Someone is telling you a really personal story about why he missed the past week of school. It’s not like you can do anything to help, and the story is so personal you want to yell, “Woah, TMI, man,” but instead you listen for a while, growing increasingly frustrated and weirded out as he talks, then you reply, “So what?”
A couple of your friends are talking about how they went to a really cool party that your parents wouldn’t allow you to attend. You were at home studying for the big Home Economics test on Lint Extraction and Removal, while they were at a huge party enjoying live bands and swag bags full of things like tooth whitening products, cards for music downloads and free cell phones. When one of them mentions dancing with your favorite celebrity to your favorite song, you say, “So what?”
Okay, these are uncomfortable situations, but there’s a better way to deal than saying, “So what?”
In the first scenario, you could instead politely comfort your friend and validate her feelings, and then distract her so she talks about something less boring. You could say, “What? That doesn’t even make sense when you’re such a good person. It’s their loss, not yours. Hey, did you look at our favorite website last night?”
In the second scenario, if someone tells you something that’s actually really awful, the best thing you can do is listen, nod and be supportive. It may seem awkward to hear something super-personal, or frustrating to not be able to really do anything, but imagine how you’d want to be treated if your roles were reversed. If what you really mean is, “So... what can I do to help you?” say that instead of, “So what?”
In the third scenario, you’re going to look envious and petty if you put down your friends for enjoying something you didn’t. Instead, asking questions and saying stuff like, “Wow, wish I’d been there,” permits your friends to enjoy their happy memory.
If you can’t do these things—if it’s too painful or you’re too jealous—find an excuse to leave the conversation and go somewhere else. It’s better to step away than say something you’ll regret.