By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
It is painful to see someone you love struggling. Sometimes it is difficult simply because you empathize with their pain and want to help them feel better. At other times, your feelings are more complicated. Your empathy might be contaminated by anger over the person’s poor choices that create problems for them. In both cases, you might wonder how best to respond.
The greatest danger in these situations is that your desire to lessen their (and your) pain can overtake your thinking. You might insist that the person take some particular course of action. For instance, you might tell your best friend to dump her married ‘boyfriend.’ This might, in theory, be the best possible advice, but reality has other important factors, such as whether she is ready to hear it. If she’s not, then it won’t help. She may try to prove why you are wrong, or just agree without changing a thing.
So, when faced with needing to support a friend through difficult circumstances, you will do best to keep these four tips in mind:
Listen. Don’t give your opinion. Don’t advise. And, don’t try to make the pain go away – at least, not as an initial response. Instead, only ask questions to help you fully understand your friend’s struggles.
Express compassion. You can show you understand and care in a number of ways. For instance, you can verbally express your understanding, give a hug, or send a card. You can follow up on conversations to let the person know you are concerned. And, you can follow up with helpful actions. For instance, a friend who is going through cancer treatment might appreciate you sometimes preparing dinner for her.
Offer your opinion when requested. People often just want to feel heard as they work through their problems. So, it is a greater service to them to be a sounding board than it is to give them solutions. If they ask for advice or indicate that they are open to it (you might need to ask this), feel free to share your feedback. Then leave it alone – your comments should be suggestions, not directives.
Be there. It can be difficult to sit with someone as they struggle, but this is often exactly what is called for.
Helping a loved one through adversity takes a commitment to caring. Finding it in your heart to listen, be supportive, and be consistently there are often the greatest gifts you can offer.
The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.