When someone you care about is upset, it can be hard to know how to help. Though their distress tugs at your heart, you may find that you don’t know what to say or that you say all the wrong things. To help you navigate these difficult situations, consider the guidelines below:
Remain calm. It’s easy to get caught up in someone else’s intense emotions, leaving you both off balance. Instead, work to remain calm so that you can be a stable and comforting support.
Engage in active listening. Remember that your role is to give your friend a sense that you are hearing what they have to say and that you can empathize with their situation. Do a lot of listening. Ask for clarification when you need it. And respond with comments that show you “get” what they are going through.
Express compassion. There is something healing about knowing you are not alone as you face difficulties. While your friend might be thrilled if you could fix their problem with the wave of a wand, you don’t need magical powers to help. Effectively communicating your caring can do wonders for helping them feel better, or at least less alone. Even in the worst of circumstances you can do this by saying something as simple as, “It hurts me to see you in such pain. I wish I could fix this for you.”
Focus on your friend, not yourself. While it might be appropriate to share similar circumstances that you’ve been through as a way to let your friend know you understand, keep these comments to a minimum. Talking at length about yourself shifts the topic to you, away from them and their struggle.
Be patient and accepting. Your friend may be more expressive than you are comfortable with. Or, your friend might not want to talk when you think that would be the best thing. In both cases, it’s essential that you initially accept them as they are. Don’t demand that they calm down. Don’t demand that they talk. Just be with them. (An important caveat is that you might need to be more insistent if their behaviors are intensifying their distress or they are causing significant and immediate harm to themselves or others.)
But once you show acceptance, you can – if appropriate – express your concerns about how they are coping. You might observe aloud that they seem to be making themselves sick by keeping it all in or by constantly churning up their own pain. If this causes them to reflect on, and change, how they are coping, great! If not, return to a more supportive position. Allow more time and then try again if your concerns persist.
Ask before problem solving. If your friend is more interested in support and validation than finding a solution, then they will likely be upset by you trying to problem solve. So, ask before jumping in with your solutions.
Consider getting outside help. When you feel in over your head, consider where you might turn for direction. It could be a friend with some particular expertise, or a professional.
Keep in mind that you don’t need solve your friend’s problems. Your “job” is simply be a caring friend who is willing to listen and offer support as needed. In the end, the comfort you offer, not the answers you give, will usually be most helpful.