When I want to support people who are dealing with a difficult period emotionally, I start by assuming nothing. It’s like I pretend the person is from a fascinating foreign land and let them tell me what it’s like for them. This way, the person I’m talking with has a chance to share their story in their own way. They can help me really understand what it is like for them, so I can feel empathetic, rather than feeling like I need to jump in and solve their problems. Quite often, I‘m surprised by what they share, if I give them the chance. Do you have friends you are trying to support emotionally but do not know how? Here my top 7 ways to communicate with someone going through a hard time.
1. Don’t say “Everything will be OK”
This is the classic no-no! You want to comfort the person you’re talking with, but saying everything will be OK stops people in their tracks. Instead, invite them to keep going, go deeper, to cry, or to rant and rave if they need to.
2. It’s tough to talk about emotions
Know it may be really hard for them to share. You’ll be surprised by the closeness that will come from emotional conversation with a friend if you just let them talk about how they feel. Even if it feels awkward to just listen and not give a bunch of advice, there is nothing more important you could do. If you feel worried that what a friend has shared may lead to them hurting themselves or others, that is when it is super important to share that information with an adult. It is not betraying trust; it is keeping your friend safe.
3. Tell the truth (even when it’s hard)
If you have bad news, deliver it in a way that gives as much information as the person can tolerate. Let your friend take the lead on how much he or she wants to know. They will ask for more if they want to talk about something. When someone realizes you speak the truth, he or she is much more likely to reach out again. And remember: Any missing facts will be filled in with by their imagination, which is almost always, like, ten times worse than facts. So, give them a break, and just tell it like it is.
4. It’s normal to feel a lot of feelings at the same time
You can be scared and hopeful at the same time. Same with angry and relieved. Same with overwhelmed and excited. It’s easy to feel two, three or four things at once, and not be able to name any single one of these feelings. Emotions are confusing. It’s OK if a friend can’t tell you exactly how they are feeling. Give them time to sort things out, but also encourage them to reach out and get the support they need to help them work through their challenges.
5. Listen for buried feelings
Emotions can be buried deep within questions or stories a friend might share with you. Sometimes as listeners we can get so caught up in details we miss the feelings entirely! Try to listen for the feelings so you can get clues for how to truly help your friend.
6. Watch for openings
People rarely sit down and say, “I need to talk to you about something important to me…” Instead, important conversations may come up when you least expect it, maybe while doing something else, or just out of the blue during another conversation. They may just drop a few words at first to test your reaction. When this happens, demonstrate your willingness to listen. Be there. And trust that they will start a conversation when they are ready.
7. Make mistakes
Don’t beat yourself up if you make a mistake and the conversation doesn’t turn out as planned. With some real conversations under your belt, you will do better next time.
Last but not least is my favorite bit of advice, borrowed from Wendy Mogul, PhD, best-selling author from the book, “Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It, When to Listen.” Some of her ideas for intended for parents are good for everyone, even young people. She suggests to “WAIT,” which stands for, “Why Am I talking?” Seriously: Why are you talking? That should remind you to stop talking, to give your friend a chance to bring up what’s important to them to talk about.