As I’m sure most all of us would agree, when the people we love are hurting, the thing we want most is to be able to make their pain go away. We want to be able to fix it. Unfortunately, situations don’t always have a quick and easy fix. While every individual and every situation is unique, here are three key things you can do to support someone going through a tough time…without fixing it.

  1. Ask them what they need
    A good majority of the time (at least in my experience) people don’t want advice –at least at first. They just need to take their situation and think about it. They need to think through it, talk through it, cry, scream, breathe, whatever the case may be. And what they need from us in that time, is just to be there with them while they do it. “Do you want me to get involved? offer advice? or just be here and listen to you?”
  2. Respond with empathy, not sympathy
    A good rule I learned from empathy expert Brené Brown is that sympathy answers almost always begin with “at least”. “At least you were able to spend time with your mother and say goodbye before she passed”, “at least now you don’t have to work those terrible hours anymore.” Our job as supporters is to be there to validate their feelings and keep them safe. To be empathetic, on the other hand, is to tap into a part of yourself that has experienced the feelings the other person is experiencing in that moment. Not everyone can do this though – which is completely okay! If you really don’t know what it is like to feel the way they are feeling, just say so. You don’t realize how far a simple phrase like, “I can’t even imagine how you must be feeling right now” can go.
  3. Utilize response techniques to create and promote healthy conversation
    Nonverbal responses like eye contact, head nods, and appropriate interjections, as well as answering in a way that repeats the essence of what you have just been told, you show the speaker you are activly listening and you care about and want to hear what they are saying. You can also make conjectures about how someone may be feeling by paying attention to their behavior. It is okay if you are wrong. If you say to someone “hey, you seem upset” and they aren’t, they will let you know. A lot of times, they will even go on to tell you about how they are actually feeling!

As with everything in life, practice makes perfect. It is not the end of the world if you use an “at least” statement, break eye contact, or offer unsolicited advice. The effort you are making to be more conscientious is already a huge step in the right direction! Happy chatting!

Guest Blogger: Hillary May, Ms. Delaware
Acknowledgements: A special thanks to my friends, colleagues, and teammates at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Supporting KIDDS, the Mental Health Association of Delaware, and the National Alliance for Mental Illness for allowing me to be part of this community and for helping teach and guide me along the way. The knowledge and experiences I have gained go far beyond what is written above, and it is all thanks to you.