Help me not give advice and instead be a supportive loving friend.
March 10, 2017 12:09 PM   Subscribe

So, non-advice givers, friend of the year MeFites, loving supportive people…what do you do instead of fixing? What is your thinking as people lay out their problems? How do you direct your end of the conversation so it’s helpful or productive in some way.

I’ve come to realize that I am one of those people who offers a fix when a friend is telling me about the issues in their lives. I recognize that most of the time this isn’t helpful as my friends are just trying to vent or share their frustrations. However, most of the conversations with friends is listening to their frustrations around parenting, marriage, job, etc. I might say things outright such as “oh just do this instead”. Or I might be more subtle and say “why did you do X” which leads to my friends feeling judged. I want to be a friend who is a good and helpful listener. I want my friends to feel free to share and not be judged. And most of all I want my friends to feel loved.
Recently, as I’ve realized my shortcomings, I’ve decided not to offer fixes. And I’ve realized that I sound rather disinterested in the conversation. I don’t add much other than stock phrases such as “wow!or really? Or I think you’re doing great! Or what are you gonna do (shrug)”. And the conversation tends to dwindle I think because I’m not contributing. I am at a loss on what else to listen for if not for how to fix this issue. I try to listen for emotion such as pain but sometimes I get it wrong. I’ll say “aww that sounds really hard” and we either go into a downward spiral of commiserating or she says “no it’s not bad”.

Also, it might make a difference that I’m talking about people who have been long time friends who I have less in common with as I’m not married, straight or have children. But I still want to bridge this gap and be a great friend.
posted by PeaPod to Human Relations (22 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
I focus on commiserative interjections like
-That's brutal
-What a jerk
-What did you do? [i.e., in response to someone being a jerk]
-That's an obnoxious situation
-What a hurtful thing to say
-I'm really sorry that happened

When they get done talking about it, I say, "Hey, let me know if I can help, alright?"

The "stock phrases" you refer to are pretty much what people want.

Evidence: I still have some friends
posted by radicalawyer at 12:17 PM on March 10, 2017 [32 favorites]

And the conversation tends to dwindle I think because I’m not contributing.

it dwindles because they're done talking about a problem they're having. That's not a bad thing at all. Let them decide how much they want to talk about it, and when things start going quiet, change the subject. But if they want to change it back, let them.
posted by Etrigan at 12:19 PM on March 10, 2017 [11 favorites]

We (my husband and I) preface conversations like this by saying, "I just need to vent..." or "What should I do??" If we have forgotten to preface, the other will say, "Do you want solutions or do you want to vent?" at the start of what appears to be one or the other.
posted by cooker girl at 12:22 PM on March 10, 2017 [11 favorites]

Be careful not to offer value judgements or tell people how to feel even if you think you're hearing them and repeating what they're saying. Instead of saying "that sounds bad," say "is that bad/hard for you?" If they're describing dealing with a needy coworker, ask, "is it affecting your work?" or "does that tire you out?" You want to give the speaker an opportunity to make that assessment - maybe they haven't - and explore their experience, or if they have already decided it gives them a chance to talk through why they think it is or isn't [value]. And you're still engaging, you're just keeping it focused on them.

Reflection, Clarification, and Active Listening are some of the terms you're looking for.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:28 PM on March 10, 2017 [16 favorites]

I think you've hit the problem on the nose when you say, "I want my friends to feel loved." The key thing here is that people usually have to feel like you consider their frustrations / emotions / problems 'valid' to feel like 'you get them.' And the problem with offering 'fixes' or 'why did you do that' type replies is that those replies can make someone feel like their frustration / problem isn't 'valid' in your mind.

My experience (speaking as someone with strong 'fixer' instincts) is to work to validate your friends' frustrations / emotions. Validating statements like, "it's really terrible when your kids don't sleep through the night. I barely made it through those early-childhood years" seem to work very well compared to the 'fixer' statement, "have you tried the no-cry sleep solution?"

And when I'm really honest with myself, I know that I prefer to have my frustrations 'validated' as opposed to 'solved.' I feel much 'warmer' toward a friend or family member who has acknowledged by frustration in a heartfelt way than someone who offers a 'fix' right off the bat.

Indeed, once the validation/connection is built, the friend will often then ask for advice, for fixing the problem. And often not, as well. Sometimes it's just a ritual for building the human connection. Emotional grooming, if you will; As people, we don't pick the nits off of our friends, in the way that other primates might, to build social connection. I think we build social connection through emotional grooming behaviors.

So if you look at my posting history, you'll see that I've asked questions about my own struggle with interpersonal connections. And now I'm going to go into the dreaded 'fixing' mode: what helped me more than anything to turn the corner and become comfortable with 'emotional grooming' of the people I care about was getting on an SSRI. Prior to that, my anxieties really had me rejecting the notion of 'emotional grooming', and dismissing people that were making bids for it as emotionally too needy.

Best of luck to you.
posted by Doc_Sock at 12:58 PM on March 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

You have admirable self-awareness; this will help you in your quest to be a better listener! I think it also helps to tap into your real curiosity about and love for the person. Some ideas:

Encourage the person to continue talking:
"Say more", "Oh yeah?"

Follow up questions like, "Wow, how did you feel when he said that?!" or "Now what are you going to do?"

Informational questions (in moderation): "Is this the same guy you were talking about Wednesday?" or "So what do you think of that new neighbor you mentioned last week?"
[Aim for questions that do not have a yes/no answer]

Rephrase what friend said as a statement or as a question. Friend: "I can't decide if I should take this new job or just stick with this one I'm in" You: "You can't figure out what to do next" or "You're not sure if the new job will be any better?"

Empathize "Oh honey" "That sucks", "You worked so hard for that."

Notice and compliment "Wow, great work!" or "Your parents are really lucky to have such an attentive daughter"

Watch and respond to body language. If the person seems uncomfortable, it's OK to stop asking questions. If you notice they seem to want to say more, it's OK to just ask, "What else were you going to say?"

I can tell you from experience, all this feels awkward at first, and then gets natural with practice.
posted by latkes at 1:21 PM on March 10, 2017 [15 favorites]

I think it's a bit of a myth that people who are venting about their problems don't want them solved. They just don't want to feel dismissed, which is the effect of coming in with a "oh just do x instead", as you've already realized.

It helps to understand that venting emotionally is actually part of the problem-solving process. Fully exploring how they think feel about something and what it would take for them to feel better about it. And venting to a friend makes them feel that they're not facing their problems alone, as Doc_Sock has explained.

So if you can keep reminding yourself that venting and problem-solving aren't dichotomous, I think just changing your understanding of what people are trying to achieve when they vent, and keeping that in mind while you listen and react, are going to help you here.

When I do spot an opening to offer a solution they may not have thought of, I usually put it in terms of "what if you did x? would that work?"

Sometimes that does help. For example my friend was pissed off because her landlady had suddenly imposed a ton of old furniture on her, which she then had to fit into the garden shed, which was a lot of work, and then the garden shed didn't have any room for her stuff any more. I said what if you tried to fit your own stuff inside the furniture? And clearly labelled it as belonging to you so it doesn't mistakenly get taken away if the furniture is moved?

Well, it so happened that in her annoyance and hard labour she had not thought of that, and when I made my suggestion the sun came out. You don't always hit the jackpot like that, but it's worth it when you do.
posted by tel3path at 1:30 PM on March 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Understand and live by the saying "listen to understand, not to reply." That's how you show support, you listen. And then, instead of making any kind of declarative statement, you ask questions. And listen again. Like this:

What would do differently next time?
Why do you think that person did that?
What do you think you should do next?
posted by raisingsand at 1:31 PM on March 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

"That sucks"
posted by Marinara at 1:55 PM on March 10, 2017

However, most of the conversations with friends is listening to their frustrations around parenting, marriage, job, etc.

For me it was helpful to understand which sorts of venting conversations were a friend letting off steam because they were dealing with a rough patch of stuff in an otherwise okay life, and which were friend venting because they had poor coping skills, untreated mental illnesses, or other issues that were going to make this one-way venting a permanent part of our relationship. And then deciding how I felt about that.

Because for me, part of being a fixer is that to me a conversation involves two people. If they are talking to me as opposed to someone else, it's okay for me to bring my own mind to the conversation. So I don't jump in with "Try this!!" stuff but I definitely try to constructively help them in a way that I think is going to be useful. And this depends on the friend.

Some of them want to bitch for a while and then be led to a slightly happier place (maybe making jokes about how terrible the boss is or whatever, it's very context-dependent) to get them off that topic. Sometimes they want to brainstorm ideas but not do anything. Sometimes they just want to know that when stuff is crappy for them, there is someone there who gives s shit and that they are not alone in dealing with it, or that someone who understands "their mind" gets it. This is often true with relationship stuff. It's not even so much bitching about a relationship as it is wanting to be understood and validated as not overreacting or otherwise having a disproportionate reaction. So sometimes just having variants of "I would be mad about that too!" can also be a lot more useful than you'd think.
posted by jessamyn at 2:06 PM on March 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

In addition to the above: "You are tough / smart / awesome. You've got this!" There are times when offering advice is good and right. Much of the time the best bing you can do to support your friends is to affirm their ability to handle their situations, and that in the meantime you are willing to sit with them in their worry or hurt or anger and really hear them.

There's also a way to talk about problems that's open ended and collaborative. Where you don't offer advice but you do help find a solution. It's not always the appropriate method but sometimes it's really helpful. You may have to work up to it though. No leading questions where you are trying to guide them to some particular answer, but genuine open questions - What happened next? How did you feel? Did he say anything else? Has that happened before? Do you think Sara knows? What do you need? What do you want?
posted by bunderful at 2:07 PM on March 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think talking about your own similar situations can often help- if you do it correctly, it lends weight to your commiseration, because the friend feels like you "get it", and you can offer advice without seeming judgmental by phrasing it so that it seems like a reflection on you and not on them. ("You should do this" vs "I did this, and it [worked]/[didn't work, and I would probably do x if I could do it again]")

But it's also a bit of a tricky minefield, because you can very easily come across as implying their problems are trivial or unimportant, or end up monopolizing the conversation.

So here's the pretty basic system I use:
-Bring up short and easily summarized, analogous situation, which happened in the past and has been resolved one way or another. The situation doesn't need to be that similar to the friend's- I'm asexual, and when people come to me with relationship problems I'll often bring up problems I've had with friends or family, and it's worked pretty well. Emphasis on short- no more than four sentences.
-Quickly summarize how it made me feel, what in particular I was anxious about, etc.
-Ask the friend if they're experiencing similar feelings or thoughts. This is the crucial step- this is what keeps the conversation from becoming about you.
-If the friend says no, or says yes but seems reluctant about it ("Yeah, I guess"), then I ask questions to clarify the situation. I might have gotten the wrong impression about what the real problem is, or maybe the friend just processes situations differently. In either case, I find that the process of coaxing the friend into more clearly stating what the problem is/what her emotional state is often ends up being helpful in of itself- she herself may not realize what's really bothering her!
-If the friend says a clear yes, then I might bring up what helped me then, what I wish I'd known, etc.

Oh, and an alternative thing you can do: if the person is venting about someone else, sometimes I find that it helps to bring up an analogous situation from that someone else's perspective. So say a friend is venting over the rudeness of a partner, I'd sympathize, and then maybe bring up that one time I was so stressed out by job interviews that I snapped at my roommate and felt awful about it later, and then I'd ask something like: "Has there been anything going on in his life recently?" Of course, the person might not always be in the mood to be empathetic, so you'll have to make a judgement call on that.

Granted I am nowhere near a psychologist or anything like that but people have told me several times that I'm good when it comes to problems so that's where my advice is coming from.
posted by perplexion at 2:18 PM on March 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Validate their struggles but be blunt about it, so "that sounds really hard" and "I'm sorry you're having to deal with this" but no "awww jeeeez poor you... "

Say clearly that you want to hear the details of the problem but if they don't want to get into it that you are happy to distract them with other stuff or move on to other tasks. Give them a full pause where you are relaxed and not making eye contact so they can decide and not feel pressured either way.

Regardless of their choice to give you details or not, mentally run through a HALT check for them. HALT stands for Hungry Angry Lonely Tired. If you think any of those apply to them, do something to help fix that in the immediate moment, like bringing them tea or a snack for hungry, encouraging them to figure out the real source of their anger, reminding them they have you or giving a hug if lonely, and encouraging them to relax or take a break if tired. If you have trouble determining someone else's needs, ask them! Say "are you hungry? Things always seem a little better after I've had a good lunch" or "did you sleep okay? Maybe we can put today's thing on hold while you rest up" or simply just "how are you feeling?"

That HALT check does wonders for satisfying the fixing urge while leaving their larger problem untouched, but it also makes you stop and take stock of your own situation too, which in turn can help you develop better listening skills because you're better able to identify your own momentary needs.
posted by Mizu at 2:34 PM on March 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Have you ever had a problem, but people with shallow understandings of it just keep telling you to do very basic things that you have obviously already tried?

The reason I ask isn’t to be snarky, but because it is a good experience to keep in mind when you hear about another person’s problems. “If I assume that the person has already done x, y and z, then where do they go from there?” People don’t usually end up stuck because they are missing something obvious. They end up stuck because life is tricky, and we all have complicated relationships that make the obvious choice less optimal.

Workplace woes:

“Oh geez, what did your boss say?”
“Was anyone else in the meeting? Did they say anything to you after it happened?”
“That sucks, because it can be so hard to be blunt via email”
“Isn’t this the same person who did [other terrible thing]?”
“Where is your HR Dept, oh my gosh” [note: I know the MF standard is that HR is terrible, that is not the point. The point is to convey that it would be nice if there were responsible adults in positions of authority who could take care of internal problems]

Family issues:

“Geez, that probably plays right into [family dynamic person has described]”
“Did your brother even say anything?”
“Oh man, extended family dynamics can be so hard to figure out”
“I can’t believe she said that when the kids were in the room! Did they ask about it later?”
“Did anyone even ask you about what your plans were?”


“Wow, I wouldn’t even know what to say to that.”
“There are so many ways to take that— did she seem like she was joking?”
“I can see how that might have been an attempt to be supportive, but dude, wrong time”

I mean, a lot of these can cross over, but I think the solution to trying to solve things is to make comments and ask questions that rest on a foundation of “this is not an easy problem to solve”. If this is a person you love and respect, then you can take it as a given that they are trying their hardest and still struggling with [thing], so you speak about [thing] as if it is tricky, tangled, and harder to deal with from the inside than it might seem from an outside perspective.

Also, I definitely think that making comments that connect back to previous conversations/dynamics can be very helpful. “Ugh, he sounds so much like your dad, that’s uncanny!” We can often see patterns from the outside that people in the midst of something might not notice.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 2:36 PM on March 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

[long story omitted here] The idea I've been given is to reinforce to the venting one that you have heard the complaint. One method is called "reflective listening" which you can look up, but involves a lot of responses like "it sounds like that made you very angry." Doesn't work for me.

My own method is to ask questions that include a bit of the above, but which may also move the discussion along a bit. More like "Did she know how angry that would make you?" or "I can remember how angry that made you last time."
posted by SemiSalt at 3:57 PM on March 10, 2017

I recommend this repeatedly, but Nonviolent Communication is one framing for having empathy-based rather than solution-based conversations, and I've found it useful.
posted by orangejenny at 5:08 PM on March 10, 2017

Some great suggestions above. In addition: Try guessing about how they're feeling and asking if you're right. Like, "From what you're saying, it sounds to me like you're frustrated because you think your coworker is being disrespectful. Do you think that's right?" Or, "Are you angry because this is becoming a pattern?"
posted by chickenmagazine at 8:12 PM on March 10, 2017

When you feel like you absolutely have to give advice because it's so glaringly obvious what the problem is, here are a couple phrases to keep in mind:

~ How would you feel about... ?
~ What would you think about... ?

Another couple questions to help your friends clarify what's going on and how they should react:

~ If I came to you with this problem, what would you tell me?
~ When you've felt this way in the past, what did you think about that helped you feel better?
~ Have you been in this type of situation before? What happened? Is there anything different between this situation and previous ones? What have you learned from prior experiences that could help you now?
~ Are you blaming yourself for something over which you do not have complete control?

I recommend this site a lot, but 7 Cups of Tea is an amazing resource for people who need help working through whatever issues they're having. In your case, though, I'm going to recommend it a little differently. If you go through the training to become a Listener, you learn about active listening, and how to do it well. There's all kinds of training for Listeners, to help them help other people. I think it would be a valuable resource for you.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 6:14 AM on March 11, 2017

I think that the seminal work on this topic is probably You Just Don't Understand by Deborah Tannen. It is not a "self-help" kind of book that would offer specific suggestions (ala "Active Listening"), but reading some background on the so-called "male" and "female" styles of communication might be helpful and interesting to you.
posted by doctor tough love at 7:52 AM on March 11, 2017

A friend of mine always asks how I feel about the situation. As in 'oh wow sounds tough, how did that make you feel?' Something about hearing those words is so calming...
posted by stevedawg at 4:47 PM on March 11, 2017

Have you ever had a problem, but people with shallow understandings of it just keep telling you to do very basic things that you have obviously already tried?

When I have been most frustrated over advice, this has been the reason - the advisor didn't give me time to explain the complexities of the situation before jumping in with advice, or because I was explaining to vent and not to get advice I focused on the emotional landscape and not the nitty-gritty complexities.

And sometimes I've already solved the problem but I still want to talk about it.
posted by bunderful at 8:54 AM on March 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm also a compulsive adviser, and one of the things I do (combined with consciously trying to cut down on it, and doing the sorts of things advised above) is lampshade it as something I do that I know is not necessarily helpful, it's just how my mind works. So, "Oh, man, I wish I knew something helpful to say. I'm compulsive about trying to fix situations, so I want to tell you to try [X], but you've probably either tried it or there's a reason why it wouldn't work." At which point I feel as if I've communicated that I'm trying to be helpful and I'm engaged with the friend's problem, but I've explicitly recognized that what I'm saying is not going to fix everything.

This sounds sort of terrible when I describe it, but it does seem to work for people when I'm talking to them -- one thing is that it gives the person another place to go with their description of the problem, because I've invited them to tell me what happened when they already tried my proffered obvious fix, or what it is about the situation that makes my fix useless. It can open up another angle on the problem.
posted by LizardBreath at 11:01 AM on March 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

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