THE MOST IMPORTANT thing you can do when
a friend is talking to you about her troubles is to try to
help. So far so good. Now the question is, "What helps?"
What can you do in a conversation that will help your
friend become happier and saner? Do you need to uncover traumatic
events in her past? Will it help to give advice? What can you
do that will really help her? Here are the three most important:
1. Be interested. Just being heard
and accepted and encouraged to talk helps on the most fundamental
level. If you listen well, the person ends up no longer feeling
alone. This may seem like nothing, but it's probably the most
helpful thing you can do for a distressed friend. Not just listening
to their woes but their successes too. People thrive when they
feel known and cared about. People wilt and it actually impairs
their health when they feel alone and uncared about.
2. Keep your attention on their strengths.
Everybody has strengths. But a person's strength is something
he usually takes for granted and then because of the brain's
natural negative bias, his attention naturally drifts to his
problems, what's wrong with him, and where he's lacking. It is
a great service to someone to remind him of his strengths when
the opportunity comes up. Remind him of previous problems he
solved successfully and previous successes. When people are reminded
of their strengths and successes, they are actually more capable
of dealing with their lives.
3. Give a different perspective with
a question or story. Gaining a different perspective on a
problem can make all the difference between feeling defeated
by it or feeling determined to solve it, and that difference
in attitude can make the difference between success or failure.
But simply declaring a different
perspective is like saying, "You're looking at it all wrong."
Coming at it in such a way can make a person feel defensive,
causing her to defend her point of view and potentially make
it more difficult for her to ever think differently about it.
So ask a question, "Do you think Gandhi
would look at this differently?" Or, "What if we were
ten years in the future. How would you look at this problem from
that perspective do you think?"
Or tell a story. "This reminds me
of the movie Rudy. Remember how he had dyslexia and didn't
know it? And he struggled so hard at school until he found out?"
You can help someone with your conversations.
You don't have to be a therapist to be helpful, obviously. Friends
have been helping their friends since the invention of language.
Focus on the above three principles and
you can translate your good intentions into effective help.
When you're listening to someone's woes,
it's pretty common to say things like, "I've been there,"
or "I know exactly how you feel." Or to talk about
a similar experience you've had. It seems like it would help
make the person feel less alone with her troubles, but it doesn't.
Each person is unique, and by saying you've been there, you're
putting the person's problem in a general category. That makes
it less personal. It is a way of generalizing, categorizing,
putting someone in a slot, a class of things rather than duplicating
their own experience, which is that they feel they are in a class
by themselves. And sympathy isn't as helpful as it might seem.
One of the most helpful things you can
do for your friend is to connect with her. So trying to cheer
her up usually doesn't help. Cheering her up is, in essence,
the opposite of connecting. It is rejecting. It is trying
to get rid of what she is feeling. Closeness happens at the level
of feeling. If you are trying to stop or change the way she is
feeling, you are reducing closeness.
To really connect, listen for feelings
and be there, allowing the person's feelings to be what
they are. Don't try to relate her experience to any experience
you've had. Pay attention. Put your attention out on the other
person (not in on yourself, your memories, or your feelings)
and try to really grasp what she feels.
This is neither passive, nor is it aggressive.
It is of another order of action.
Don't come to the conclusion you know how
she feels. Maybe she feels something different than what you
would feel in similar circumstances, and maybe you haven't heard
the full story. Suspend your conclusions and listen. Put your
attention on her and allow her to feel what she feels and be
there with her, having your attention on her.
Try to hear her full experience. Ask open-ended
questions so you can understand more of her experience. "Did
that make you angry?" "What happened next?"
This kind of listening will bring you closer,
will help your friend come to grips with her troubles, and will
help her feel better. And this kind of listening can be learned.