15 Tips for Helping A Friend Through Rough Times

My family’s had some serious troubles over the past few months and it seems like people want to help but don’t know how or what to do.  Sometimes, though, it’s hard to know what to say or how to give the person support.  The biggest thing I have wanted is a person who would listen to me without squirming in discomfort or rushing to offer “solutions.” When a friend or family member is in crisis or even just having a bad day, it’s natural to want to fix the problem, but more often than not, it makes the other person feel pressured or judged.  .Here are 15  tips to help you give support in a more beneficial way.

When Your Loved One Is Speaking

  • Give them your full attention. If you’re interacting in person, look at them. If you’re speaking on the phone, stop whatever else you’re doing, and listen (unless you have ADD, in which case do whatever you need in order to focus your attention on the person in trouble.) If you get another phone call, let it go to voicemail. Pay attention to their body language, tone of voice, and their words. Listen fully to what they’re saying, and try not to formulate a response until they’ve finished.
  • Use nonverbal cues to demonstrate that you’re paying attention. Nod, lean closer, or if you’re on the phone, use affirmatives like “Mm-hm,” “Tell me more, etc.” depending on your relationship with the person, you might touch their hand or arm.
  • Listen for the emotions and concepts that the person is communicating. Focus on understanding the problem and why the person feels that it’s important.
  • Try not to interject opinions or interrupt, unless you are confused. If something confuses you or needs clarification, say something like, “I’m sorry, could you go back to [insert phrase]. Try to ask for clarification as soon as you lose the thread of conversation. People have a hard time backtracking more than a few sentences, and their ability to clarify lessens greatly after 30 seconds or more have passed. This creates confusion and stress.

When You are Responding

  • Use words. Nonverbal responses work well to communicate that you’re paying attention and interested when another person is speaking. When it’s your turn, they have the opposite effect. Conversation is like tennis or ping pong. Both people have to keep the ball in motion. A non-verbal response kills the conversational momentum, drops the ball, and forces the person who is already upset to re-serve.
  • Demonstrate empathy first. Say, “I’m sorry. It sounds like you’re really frustrated!” or “I would be so frustrated by that!” Or try something like, “That’s horrible!” “That really sucks, man!”
  • Then ask what the person needs from you. Say something like, “Do you want to talk more about it?” “What can I do to help?” or “Do you need my advice?”
  • Ask questions. This is a huge help for many people because it allows them more space to think and process their situation, and hopefully, find a solution.
  • Ask if the person is looking for advice before you offer your opinion! You may or may not have a helpful idea, but people often need time to process and think on their own before they can put a plan into action. Offering unsolicited advice can make things worse by adding pressure and expectations.

If you’re unsure or don’t know what to say, say that!  Try, “Wow, I wish I knew what I could say to help you right now, but I don’t. I’m glad you told me anyway.”

What Not to Say/Do

  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Don’t check your phone or answer it if it rings.
  • Don’t over focus on specific wording or try to correct/analyze the person’s word choices.
  • Don’t pretend to understand something to make the person feel better or to avoid being embarrassed.
  • Don’t say, “I told you so.”
  • Don’t say, “It could be worse.”
  • Don’t say, “Look on the bright side!”
  • Don’t say, “You’ll figure it out.”

These responses may feel natural or no big deal to you.  Remember that when someone is upset or in crisis, often what they need most is someone who will be present with them. Try not to make the person compete for your attention.