How to support friend emotionally without agreeing with them
May 21, 2020 10:07 AM   Subscribe

I have a close friend who has been in an ongoing conflict with their downstairs apartment neighbor for the past few months. Without going into details, I think the neighbor is being unreasonable and is the one initiating all of the conflict; however, I think my friend is making the situation worse by responding angrily and escalating the situation.

About once every few weeks they have a confrontation, and afterwards my friend is very upset and angry and wants to vent to me. I'm fine with supporting my friend and being on the receiving end of their venting; however, I don't want to further fuel their anger spiral by agreeing with the angry statements they make about the neighbor. I don't want to tell my friend how to act in these confrontations (because they haven't asked, I don't want to give unsolicited advice, and they wouldn't be able to follow my advice anyway because they have a very different personality from me) but I also don't want to validate that I think the way they are behaving in these situations is perfect.

Things I have tried:
- Empathizing with my friend about the aspects of the neighbor's behavior that I think are unreasonable
- Suggested that my friend avoid interacting with this neighbor as much as possible
- Suggested that my friend try to find ways to keep their anger about this situation from spiraling
- Suggested third parties that my friend could seek advice from (tenants' rights groups, etc.)

These have worked okay, but I still wonder whether I'm validating my friend too much in my effort to be supportive. How can I support my friend emotionally without completely agreeing with their view of the situation?
posted by mekily to Human Relations (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
This sounds more about your own comfort. You say that you’re fine providing your friend space to vent. But it also sounds like you’re trying to mitigate their anger and suggest fixes. That’s the opposite of allowing them to vent, and if I were on the other end of that conversation I would feel invalidated in what sounds like reasonable anger towards a belligerent bully. It’s possible to have boundless rage without acting on it. And having that emotion validated generally prevents it from escalating.

I would also question whether they are truly spiraling. In my experience, I start any venting situation expressing only about 2% of that anger, because as a woman I’m taught anger is too much. If they seem receptive, I’ll dial it up to 10%. It might look like spiraling, but it’s actually just dropping the minimization that I’ve been taught.

I think it’s fine to say you are unavailable for venting.
posted by politikitty at 11:20 AM on May 21, 2020

It doesn’t sound like your friend has asked for suggestions (or even your opinion on who is right and who is wrong?) so don’t offer any.

Friend: “Neighbor said x, y, z. They are horrible!”
You: “I’m sorry this is happening. It really sucks to not feel at peace when you’re in your own home.”
posted by teamnap at 11:26 AM on May 21, 2020 [4 favorites]

I had a similar situation and what I realized eventually was that I didn't truly have as much capacity for listening to this person vent as I'd first thought (or I'd been worn out by the frequent venting.) Hearing someone rage from a perspective that doesn't really line up with my values is draining in a different way than listening to venting about things we're on the same page about. (But YMMV and I'm curious about other perspectives/strategies.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 12:36 PM on May 21, 2020 [10 favorites]

It sounds to me like the things you are doing are pretty good. From the list of things you say you've tried, I'd say I think you're drawing the line in the right place between being emotionally supportive without endorsing their actions that you disagree with. If you are comfortable playing the role of sympathetic ear, then I think you're probably doing a good job at it and you can keep doing what you're doing.

If your friend does specifically ask for your opinion of their actions, you might want to have something prepared, like, "Well, you know I'm on your side and I think your neighbor's being a jerk. I do worry that you might be making things harder for yourself when you do x/y/z, because it seems like that just encourages him to respond by doing a/b/c, which makes you even angrier. If you want my advice, maybe you should try to do u/v/w instead of x/y/z, because then he won't do a/b/c. But that's really your call, and I'm here for you whatever you decide." Assuming those things are true. But if your friend isn't asking for your advice and you don't feel the need to give it unsolicited, and you really don't mind being the sympathetic ear when they vent to you, then I'd say keep on keeping on.
posted by biogeo at 12:45 PM on May 21, 2020 [4 favorites]

there are ways to get your opinion in, in a two-way conversation, without committing the dreaded boundary violation of just saying what you think without being formally asked. and that way is: get them to ask. you don't have to be especially sly about it. like here's a made-up scenario:

Friend: that ASSHOLE downstairs came up to complain about noise again as if it's my fault, all I was doing was walking around! so I says to him I says Listen, asshole, we live in a SOCIETY--

You, interrupting a little bit: oh WOW holy SHIT did you REALLY

Friend: What? What do you mean? I've told you before how he is, this is just the latest--

You: Yeah no I know! I was just shocked to hear you said that back to him because I'd be scared of making him even angrier! that's really brave, I can't deal with people like that without trying to kind of smooth things over. Sorry, go on, what happened next?

---and then they can think about that if they like, or brush right by it and go on with the story. There's no need to intervene any more than that unless you have some reason to think they are actually going to get evicted or assaulted as a result of this ongoing conflict.

there's a risk of sounding passive-aggressive if you use my model, which means there is a risk they might figure out what it is you really think. which isn't the worst thing in the world, really.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:35 PM on May 21, 2020 [6 favorites]

also, and this is manipulative if you like, but if you let a pause hang in the air for a sec and then say:

"So, I don't want to offer advice you haven't asked for, but would you like to know what I think?"

all but the most incurious people, even if they know they are not going to like what you have to say, will have a hard time leaving this alone once you put it on the table. if they say yes, there's your engraved invitation. and if they say No, you can wonder at their willpower and commend their souls to the safekeeping of providence.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:40 PM on May 21, 2020 [8 favorites]

So one thing that might be good: sometime when your friend hasn't recently had a confrontation, start a conversation with them. Say, "Hey friend, listen, I want to talk about the situation with your neighbor. I want to be supportive and helpful without making it worse for you. When one of these situations happens, what's the most useful thing I can do to support you?" and then just see what they say. Maybe they want to vent. Maybe they want your advice. They might know the answer to this already.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:22 PM on May 21, 2020

In low, sympathetic, sincere tones:

"Do you want me to kill them for you?"
posted by sock_slink_slink at 4:17 PM on May 21, 2020 [4 favorites]

Validation is not the same thing as agreeing.

I think one tack you might try is "it sounds like you're focused on doing x, but have you thought about trying y" (with "y" being somewhere between where your friend is and where you realistically think they could go). This is, in fact, offering advice... but I think it also expresses empathy and understanding but not necessarily agreement, which it seems you are aiming for. It's not telling your friend what to do, but offering them a different perspective from which to think. I feel that since you have already given suggestions, you are already providing some input (whether you think of it as advice or not) so this doesn't seem like a huge stretch to me.
posted by sm1tten at 4:17 PM on May 21, 2020

Listen to them rant angrily about escalating things between their neighbour. Then when there’s a pause, look at them and say,
“So, is this working for you?”
When they ask what you mean, just say ask if their current strategy is resolving the situation.
Get them to look at it critically. You’re not casting judgement, you’re just clearing the way for them to realise that the way they’re approaching it at the moment isn’t helping. Once they understand that, then they might be open to new ideas to improve relations.
posted by Jubey at 4:38 PM on May 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

From the list of things you tried, it looks like you're still somewhat focused on trying to find solutions -- either to help your friend apportion responsibility fairly, or to come up with ways to resolve or eliminate the conflict with the neighbor. However, it sounds like what you are doing is not changing the situation. Your friend is still getting involved in these conflicts, still reacting the way they are reacting, still in a cycle of conflict-venting-conflict.

Do you think it might be possible for you to let go of any hope of problem-solving, and stick to emotional validation only? That means focusing on your friend and how they are feeling in the moment, and fully letting go of the idea that you can fix or solve anything for them. It also means not getting involved in making judgements about the neighbor or about your friend's behavior. Here are some examples (not an exhaustive list, just some examples) of how that might sound in practice:

"Wow, I hear that you're incredibly frustrated right now."
"I'm sorry -- it seems like this situation is really stressing you out."
"I can see that you're really angry right now."
"Dang, I hear you. It sounds like you're up to here with the situation."
"It makes sense that you're frustrated -- I think anyone would be frustrated in that situation."

Notice how none of those involve rendering judgement or offering solutions -- it's really more about recognizing and validating the way they feel. Regardless of whose fault it is or why it happened, their feelings are real in that moment, and accepting them can be helpful apart from any problem-solving. Validating emotions is not the same as agreeing with a judgement. It may feel weird at first to do this, but focusing on your friend's feelings (and not on the situation itself) may help.

Here are some resources on how to practice validation -- not everything in those links might apply to your situation, but you might be able to find some useful tips nonetheless.
posted by ourobouros at 5:33 PM on May 21, 2020 [8 favorites]

I just came to say what ourobouros did.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:22 PM on May 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the perspectives, everyone. needs more cowbell, I think you hit the nail on the head that maybe I don't actually have as much patience for this venting as I thought.

Going forward I think I'll set boundaries on the venting ("Ok, we can talk about your neighbor for 5 minutes and then let's talk about something else") and validate my friend's feelings during that venting, which will be easier if I'm not dreading spending the entire conversation talking about the dreaded neighbor conflict.
posted by mekily at 7:19 AM on May 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

I hope valuation is great for you! I've found sometimes it helps give closure to the venting to do that kind of active validation. Like once you've said "wow, this is really stressing you out, I'm sorry you're having such a frustrating situation" sometimes the other person finally feels heard enough to stop repeating himself so much.
posted by Lady Li at 12:23 AM on May 23, 2020

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