Recently I’ve had a lot of friends going through hard times. Not terrible times like great illness or financial loss, but times of growth like going through big life changes or breaking up with a significant other who you know isn’t the right one.
It’s nice to be able to provide some comfort or advice for a friend going through these sorts of things. If you don’t know how, or aren’t sure that you’re particularly great at it, here are some ideas on how to improve.
Listen to your friend. Most people have the need to be heard, and it tends to be very important. Most people know the answers to their problems, if there’s even a question at stake at all, and they just want to be heard. In other words, one of the greatest skills needed for supporting your friends is just shutting up and letting them talk.
This conveys to them that they’re important and that their concern is valid.
If you listen to them thoroughly and you feel that their concern isn’t valid, you should tell them. Being a friend means that it’s your job to give honest feedback to friends when it will help them. Most of the time their concern is valid, though, and having it reach friendly ears will give them a lot of comfort.
Beyond listening, your next biggest opportunity to help them is to give them perspective that they may not have. Even the most rational and self-aware people have the ability to delude themselves when they’re too close to a situation. If they’re focused on the little picture, your job is to think about the bigger picture.
Sometimes you’ll come to a situation where you can see the big picture and it is blantantly obvious what they should do. This seems to happen most in relationships, because people tend to make very emotional decisions where a more logical decision could serve them better.
If you share your opinion, make a good case for it, and they’re still determined to do something you think is a bad idea, you may as well help them do it in the best way possible. For example, I have a friend who is pursuing someone that I think he shouldn’t pursue. I tried to be a voice of reason and help him think about it a few different ways, but it became clear in the end that he was going to go after her no matter what.
So now I just support him and try to give him the best advice possible within the constraints that any advice telling him not to go after her will fall on deaf ears. It’s better to give 70% good advice that he will take rather than 100% good advice that he will ignore.
After listening to your friend and offering perspective and support, you can also ask what they’re looking for from you. You can say something like, “How can I help? Do you just need someone to listen to, do you want me to help you figure out a solution? Something else?”
Don’t interject your own problems or concerns. Sometimes conversations are two-way dialogues, but if someone comes to you with a struggle they’re working through, you can save your own stuff for later. Give them the gift of being fully present and focused on them. Often they’re not in the best emotional state, so that level of attention can make them feel better.
Like so many other things, supporting friends is a skill that people don’t actually think of an improvable skill. A little bit of thought on how you can best do it can make a big difference, especially to your friends who come to you for support.
Photo is a random little park near the palace in Tokyo. I had an hour to kill there while waiting for a friend so I worked from one of the benches while a guy practiced clarinet a couple benches down.