3 Red Flag Words

Debby Thompson


Sitting outdoors at Blooms & Berries Farm Market, we chatted casually. The idyllic weather provided a perfect backdrop for friendly conversation. “Tell me about your upcoming travel schedule,” I said. Melinda’s answer brought a transparent response of multiple commitments crowding her already overloaded calendar.


Well, at least…

Without even thinking, I just put it out there! Well, at least … Before I could slow down, my kneejerk verbal response positioned itself like a sentinel right between us. Once again, I had insensitively lowered the three-word hammer: Well, at least.

Since that day, I have been thinking about the three words that thwart Well, at least … and the situations where it occurs. Imagine yourself in one of these scenarios.

My teenage daughter just dented the rear door of our new SUV.

Well, at least she didn’t total it.

I hate I had to leave early.

Well, at least you were able to come.

My brother has cancer.

Well, at least is not the bad kind.

My plane was 2 1/2 hours late.

Well, at least you got here.

My husband has been just laid off his job.

Well, at least he will now be able to attend your children’s sporting events.

My entire family is sick with the stomach virus.

Well, at least it is not the flu.

My father just passed away.

Well, at least you had him for these many years.

My wallet was stolen.

Well, at least your bank can handle the confusion.

Last month, I lost my mother to Alzheimer’s.

Well, at least you are still here, and have not yet moved overseas.

Our washer just died.

Well, at least you have an excuse to buy a new one.

Our baby was up all night teething.

Well, at least you can take a nap this afternoon.

Lightning struck the tree in our backyard; it fell and it ruined the neighbor’s fence.

Well, at least it didn’t fall on their house.


Though each response is valid, the response is just not helpful. Three questions bear consideration:

Why motivates us to do respond Well, at least?

I believe we are uncomfortable with the raw negative reality that regularly occurs in life.

• We feel awkward when we hear adverse information.

• We assume the responsibility to instruct the individual in how to view their situation differently.

• We are compelled to offer another viewpoint of their circumstances, situation, dilemma, pain, diagnosis, problem or relationship.

• We don’t know what else to say, and yet we feel compelled to say something—anything. Our go-to response becomes Well, at least.


Are we interested in correcting or connecting?

Herein lies an opportunity for you and me to grow. We must learn to resist the compulsion to correct, and use the occasion to connect. When we allow the Holy Spirit to provide the perspective, we are set free to provide the ointment of relational understanding.


What would be better?

Imagine the individual saying, “I don’t need your commentary; I need your comfort.” Then, if we listen compassionately with the eyes of our heart, more empathetic responses emerge.

I am sorry.

I am so sorry.

Do you want to talk about it?

Tell me more.

(Silence with a hug.)

Consider one or more of these suggestions inserted into our previous list.

My husband has been just laid off his job.

Do you want to talk about it?

Last month, I lost my mother to Alzheimer’s.

I am so sorry. (Silence with a hug.)

Our baby was up all night teething.

(Silence with a hug.)

Lightning struck the tree in our backyard; when it fell, it ruined the next-door neighbor’s fence.

I am sorry; tell me more.

Since my conversation at the Farm Market, I have sought to be more circumspect, more alert. On more that one occasion, an internal buzzer has gone off reminding to me step back with my words and step up with my understanding. Well, at least I am beginning to get it!

Living With Eternal Intentionality: What about you? When do you tend to punctuate a conversation with Well, at least … ? 


Debby Thompson and her husband Larry have served on the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru) for 42 years, with 33 years living and working in Eastern Europe. Now living in Cincinnati, Debby is a grandmother of six , a speaker, writer and mentor for women around the world. Her forthcoming book with Ambassador International is “The Leader’s Wife.” Subscribe to her blog at DebbyThompson.com, Living with Eternal Intentionality and follow her on Twitter at @Debbythompson17. To contact Debby Thompson, email Debby.thompson@cru.org.