A friend in need is a friend not in need of me.
April 19, 2005 4:19 PM   Subscribe

How do I learn what to say to a friend in need?

I'm pretty bad at comforting friends who are depressed/down/anxious/getting over a breakup/grieving/revealing a delicate secret/etc. These situations require tact and a wise word here and there, and I'm prone to either awkward silences or cracking a poor joke in a failed attempt to cheer them up. At best nothing improves, at the worst I hurt their feelings. The result is my friends tend to avoid me when they're in trouble or in need of comfort.

I would desperately like to be able to help the people I care about. But I don't quite know how--I think the art of comforting is something one picks up while growing up, but since I didn't really start interacting with people until a few years ago I'm a bit behind. I don't have any problem with asking people what they want me to do, but if someone's mom just died they're not really up to giving me step-by-step instructions on helping them feel better. I try think of what helped me when I was in a similar situation, but since I generally don't talk to others when I'm feeling down that isn't much help, either.

Are there any crash courses to figuring out the right thing to say in different situations? How did you learn what to do when someone's feeling down? When do you distract them? When do you ask if they want to talk about it? When do you talk and when do you listen? When do you bake them a pie and when do you leave them alone? Any tips on picking up on grief cues would be greatly appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total)
Be yourself. Also better to say nothing at all than to say something that could be taken as offensive. Listening to them is the best advice I can give as it helps relieving any pent up emotions from the troubled thoughts about a situation. Adding that the needed answers may come from themselves when they talk about the situation they are in. As good advice is learned from living it (life) yourself.
posted by thomcatspike at 4:47 PM on April 19, 2005

It sounds like you need to learn to be empathetic.

For most of my formative years I was a loner and didn't really interact with people. I learned how to be empathetic through movies, music. and literature.

By putting myself in the place of the people I was watching, listening to or reading about, imagining what must be going on in their head, I gained a better understanding of the human condition.

Of course you can't learn empathy through the arts alone. You have to go out there and make some human connections. You need to screw yourself up some. Laugh. Cry. Be really pissed off about something. Experience some pain and pleasure that you can relate to other people.

To answer your question on what to say; say what is in your heart. You are a human. Right? You have feelings. Right? What would you want someone to say to you if you were in their shoes?

Most importantly, be sincere.
posted by thefinned1 at 4:53 PM on April 19, 2005

Don't be afraid to make a physical show of support; offering a hug, putting your arm around him/her, etc. Unless you know that the person is particularly averse to such things, I think most people will appreciate it.
posted by ludwig_van at 4:54 PM on April 19, 2005

"Reflecting" is kind of a nice tactic, too - you kind of paraphrase what you're hearing them say/how they say they're are feeling, and it lets them know they're being really heard. E.G. "Wow, man, it sounds like you're really feeling defeated right now..."
"Gee, it seems like you're very frustrated with this..." "That sounds like it must be difficult to handle right now for you" - may sounds a bit hokey here, but reflecting back what you hear can work toward making that person feel very listened to (if you're on the mark, of course, and aren't projecting feelings onto them)
posted by tristeza at 4:57 PM on April 19, 2005

All good suggestions. I would say that what seems like an "awkward silence" to you is the gift of your presence to the other person. During tough times, that presence is appreciated more than you realize.
posted by Doohickie at 4:57 PM on April 19, 2005

When do you bake them a pie [...]?

Always. Pie is the international language of empathy.

That said... just be genuine. Don't try to make them laugh, just let them do what they need. Silence doesn't have to be awkward. Distractions are better than wisecracks... see if they want to go for a walk or some ice cream. Also, hugs.
posted by salad spork at 4:59 PM on April 19, 2005

Some really good suggestions above. Also, it's okay to acknowledge that you don't know exactly what to say or do besides the fact that you care about them, e.g., "I'm really sorry you're hurting. I wish there was more I could say -- if you would like to talk about how you're feeling, I will listen as long as you need."
posted by scody at 5:08 PM on April 19, 2005 [2 favorites]

Don't give them advice !

If you're a guy, that's what you want to do--solve their problem for them. Doesn't work. What you really need from a friend is an empathic ear. Let him or her unload, secure in the knowledge that you wish the best for them, and that your heart is with them.

Don't try to cheer them up, or jolly them out of their pain. It just invalidates what they are currently feeling. Sometimes we just have to work though things, but it often feels better if you can do it with a friend...

Be tuned in to what they want -- they will communicate it, but probably as sub-text. If they need solitude, let them have it.
posted by curtm at 5:08 PM on April 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

Awkward silences are better than poor jokes. Joking is for when the person is starting to get over it and a little like their old self, not when the problem is at full strength and the person feels alienated. At that moment, a joke is like a trivialization of some giant shit sandwich they have to eat every day for the next few weeks, but which you do not. Generally it's good to show you appreciate that, and allow them to feel overwhelmed and cursed by fate for a little while.

It's good to say something up front about the problem, like really quickly and as naturally as possible, if you can, to show that it's an acceptable point of conversation. But don't go further if the other person doesn't.

You want the person to know that time will go on, things will get better, and you'll still be friends -- but you can't merely say the words. Try to stay plugged in with them through your common interests and accept their different behavior. If they're totally incapable of enjoying things, then you probably can ask if they want to talk, or do something more directly encouraging.
posted by fleacircus at 5:14 PM on April 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

Lots of really good advice here. Put yourself in their position. What you really seek when you are in crisis is a sympathetic ear, true friends who reaffirm their friendship and at a really base level, connection. To give this, you do not have to say or do anything really special, just be there. Be sympathetic to their feelings, save any criticisms for later, and just basically project an attitude of unconditional acceptance of their grief and any other feelings. Remember when you got crapped on in school by the bully or a bully teacher and you came home and your mom said something like, " oh, that must have been really hard" and you just knew right then that she was on your side? That is what you want to project to your friend.
posted by caddis at 7:36 PM on April 19, 2005

Bringing food is always good -- not just sweets, but sustaining food, like a lot of great soup or stew they can heat and eat for several days so as not to worry about cooking. I find a change of scene to help, too. You can always say "Why don't we go for a drive?" and go the most scenic possible route. Sad people tend to need sunlight and something beautiful to lift their spirits, and may not seek out for themselves.

Silence is okay. You don't need to draw someone out if you don't feel you have the talent. Questions, like others have said, are good too. You can also ask them if they need any errands run, in a delicate way -- something like "I'm headed to the store -- anything I can grab for you while I'm there?" or "I've got to run to the post office -- do you have any mail I can drop off?" Personally, I find that when someone has a big, unsolvable problem that they can't or won't discuss, focusing on the small solvable things provides a much needed feeling of control and relief.

Ultimately, I think the most important advice already given is to be sincere. I once approached the mother of a friend who died, and who was standing momentarily alone at his memorial looking so sad. Not knowing what else in the world to say, I said exactly what I was thinking: that her son was such a good, kindhearted person, that he truly meant so much to me, that I was glad I had known him and was so sorry for her, and whatever else came out of my awkward, babbling mouth. She hugged me so close. She knew I meant it, and my actual words meant less than that I hadn't chosen to mask my feelings and give her some correct, standard line while failing to meet her eye.

If I were comforting a friend who'd lost someone I didn't know, I imagine much the same instinct might lead me to tell them what I felt about them -- my respect and love for them, my faith in their ability to overcome their hardship, my wish to know the best thing to do to help. Honestly, I think that frame of mind is natural when there's been a death. Life briefness is so obvious at those moments, and one of our few true comforts is the act of authentically connecting to another person. It's better to gather your courage, push the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing aside, and say what's true.

If I am hurt, I value those who will show up and try to make it better, regardless of their empathetic gifts. If they are able to meet my eyes and risk awkwardness to say something true, I value them even more so.
posted by melissa may at 7:38 PM on April 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you are a sensitive and sincere person, but you just need the skills. You are more than half way there because you realize you need the skills and also because you want to do something about it.
There is no simple answer - but here goes:

1) People need to be understood - this simply means listening to someone and not giving advice or trying to fix their problem.

2) Feelings need to be validated - in other words you can (sparingly) say "that must feel terrible" or something appropriate.

3) Do not say "I know how you feel" unless you have been in a similar situation.

4) Just be there for them - just you being there and listening already means a lot.

5) Don't interrupt. Don't ask too many questions.

6) Believe in your friend - sometimes the whole world feels against one, that is when you need a friend who believes in you.

7) Some may disagree - but sometimes I say: "I hear what you are saying - but I do not know what to say"

I hope this helps
posted by bright77blue at 7:40 PM on April 19, 2005

There's no crash course because there isn't reallly a "right" way to comfort people in need. It's just like being a friend at any other time: you have to relate to them in the ways you relate to them. Some people at some times will want to be listened to, and some will want advice; some will want attention and some to be distracted... the important thing is to be as conscious as possible of what your friend wants, and to make it clear to him or her that you want to help

I would desperately like to be able to help the people I care about. But I don't quite know how-

Let them know that. Your actually being emotionally affected, rather than just trying to fake the right lines, will be meaningful to most people. Just honestly express to the people you love that you love them, and that you are ready & willing to be there for them in whatever manner they need. what sort of help to offer is dependent on multiple particulars, but honesty and genuineness are always the right paths when it comes to being a good friend.
posted by mdn at 9:26 PM on April 19, 2005

Don't try to "make it better." Just be there with them. It's more of a "you're not alone" thing than a "here, let me fix it" thing.
posted by callmejay at 9:42 PM on April 19, 2005

the best thing to do is to learn to be an active listener. read up on Carl Rogers' therapeutic techniques and just take bits and pieces that work for you from that.
posted by playtragic at 11:21 PM on April 19, 2005

I agree with lot's of good advice here. I used to have trouble with this kind of thing myself - I think the critical thing is to express sympathy (it doesn't have to be profound or eloquent, just "I'm really sorry about that"), express that you are there for them ("is there anything I can do for you?" "would you like me to hang around for a while?") and be ready to listen without having to give too much input. Often people just need to get stuff off their chests.
posted by nanojath at 11:24 PM on April 19, 2005

If you don't mind using something like a book, When You Don't Know What to Say: How to Help Your Grieving Friends seems as though it was written for people like you.

I haven't read it. I found it looking up "What to say and how to say it," which is a book more for public speakers who want to know how to orate usefully in commonly-encountered situations.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:53 AM on April 20, 2005

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