Sometimes you’re chatting with a friend and all of a sudden the conversation takes a turn for the dark side. Your friend is going through something rough, and you want to be supportive but you don’t quite know what to do. These sort of situations are uncomfortable for everyone.
How you handle this situation can do a lot to comfort your friend or put them on the defense.
Here are a few guidelines to set you in the right direction talking to a friend going through times of trouble:
More than anything, your friend just needs to tell their story. Give them the space to talk it out and repeat themselves as much as necessary. They are just trying to process their thoughts, and telling someone about their troubles helps them sort through them.
You don’t have to say anything. Lend a sympathetic ear and leave it at that. Anything you have to say while a person is midstream is nothing more than an interruption. Silence will encourage them to continue their story, which helps them process their emotions organically.
Understand that they are going through a troubling time, regardless of how you perceive the situation. Maybe you think worse things have happened to yourself or other people, that doesn’t make this person’s pain hurt any less. Sometimes it is as simple as saying, “I’m so sorry you are going through this. That situation seems really rough.”
Ask if You Can Help
Let your friend know that you are there for them, and let them know that you are willing to help them out if they need anything. People will rarely ask for anything other than support, but it is comforting for them to know that you offered and the option is there if they need it. Only say this though if you are willing to follow through on reasonable requests.
Give Them a Hug
Almost everyone is comforted by a hug. If you aren’t sure if the person is comfortable with physical contact, ask them if they would like a hug.
Keep Their Secrets
It is no one’s business what they said to you in confidence. Keep it to yourself. It is possible that they aren’t ready yet for everyone to know what is going on with them, or they would like to tell their friends and family in their own time. It’s easy to assume that if they told you they must have told someone else, so it’s ok to tell others. That is not necessarily true. Sometimes emotions just poor out spontaneously. If someone comments how they are acting strangely lately, then say something vague like, “They must be going through something, everyone does at some point. Give them time, they’ll be fine.”
Offer Supportive Words of Encouragement
Let the person know that you believe in them. Offering words of encouragement like:
“I believe in you. You will beat this.”
“I wish you didn’t have to deal with this.”
“I think you are handling this in the best way possible.”
Statements like this will go a long way to boost their self esteem when they feel their lowest. Helping your friend build back up their confidence will help them come to their own conclusions on how to handle their situation.
DON’T Give Unsolicited Advice
Most people’s first instinct is to try to fix a troubling situation. Unless you are explicitly asked for advise, assume they aren’t looking for any. Offer your sympathies and that’s it. When you start offering advise to someone going through a hard time, it comes off preachy.
You can offer suggestions in the form of a question only. Ask for example, “Have you considered…”
DON’T Ask Invasive Questions
The only questions you should be asking are productive and encouraging questions. You do not need to know the intimate details of what happened. It is absolutely none of your business. These kinds of questions do nothing to help your friend.
DON’T Change the Subject
While it can be uncomfortable to talk about another person’s troubles when you don’t know what to say, changing the subject isn’t going to help matters. It will only make you feel more comfortable, but your friend will be stuck inside their head fretting over their problem.
DON’T Change the Way You Treat Them
After your friend has opened up to you about something, keep treating them like you always did. Don’t distance yourself from them because they are going through troubling times. They need to feel a sense of normalcy as much as ever now that they are suffering.
DON’T Make it About You
Don’t tell them that you know exactly how they feel, because you don’t. Everyone’s circumstances and ways of processing pain is different. You may have gone through something similar, but it doesn’t help the person to hear all the gritty details about that. Use your experience to offer them advise, but only when they ask for it.
Don’t make dramatic statements about how you feel about their situation and diminish their emotions in the process. If someone’s family member passed away, don’t tell them how much you haven’t slept worrying about them. They may be going through shock and haven’t processed their emotions properly yet, and you out-feeling them is selfish.
It is really not helpful for them if you criticize them about their past behavior that brought them to where they are right now. They are aware of that and suffering the consequences. Even if they aren’t, your comments are not going to change them. Now is not the time to teach them a lesson. They will reflect on their actions in their own time.
DON’T Get Dramatic With Your Words
Now is not the time for dramatics. Instead, use words the person themselves are using. If they say they are having a bad day, then say, “I’m sorry you are having a bad day. Don’t say, “This is the worst day ever.” Avoid phrases like “tragic,” catastrophic,” or “worst thing I’ve ever heard.”
“The Art of Talking to Anyone: Essential People Skills for Success in Any Situation”, Rosalie Maggio, 2005