Should You Offer Advice to a Friend Who Is in Crisis?

One woman consoles anotherEditor’s note: Michael Brustein, PsyD is a clinical psychologist and author of Perfectionism: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals. His continuing education presentation for GoodTherapy.org, titled Therapy with Perfectionistic People:
When Being Good Is Not Enough, is scheduled for 9 a.m. PDT on August 1. This event is available at no additional cost to GoodTherapy.org members and is good for two CE credits. For details, or to register, please click here.

When a friend wants to discuss a hardship, many people move directly into problem-solving mode. Offering advice is very common in supportive interactions, but sometimes friends who want to discuss a problem don’t actually want advice. In many cases, the friend discussing the problem may just want empathy, and advice may be perceived as intrusive.

As the support person for your friend, you may be aware of this reality, but it can be difficult to  confront the anxiety that your friend’s problem triggers within you. You may feel powerless in not having a solution to the problem your friend has revealed. In the moment, providing advice may seem to be easier than listening to an issue that does not have a neat answer. Many situations, in fact, such as grieving and loss, do not have any simple answers. So what’s the best tactic for helping a friend in need?

Make Sure Your Friend Feels Heard

Refrain from making an analogy to a situation you were in. “Oh yeah, that is just like when I ___.” This can make the person feel you are not listening or just want to talk about yourself. Instead, use what happened to you and the feelings you recall to help your friend label his or her emotions. When you hear your friend respond with “exactly” or “absolutely,” it signifies he or she felt heard.

Demonstrate Empathy

When a person says that he or she doesn’t know what to do, you can respond by saying something like, “I understand it’s tough,” rather than “Did you try X or Y?” Paraphrasing your friend’s experience illustrates some empathy for what he or she is experiencing.

Michael Brustein

Michael Brustein, PsyD

Be Present

Just sitting with someone and giving him or her permission to cry in your presence can be a lot more meaningful and helpful than platitudes or prosaic statements. Allowing someone to express vulnerability in this way can be extremely relieving. Sometimes silence can be extremely comforting and can model for your friend that it’s OK to not take action and just be.

Avoid the Urge to Reassure Your Friend

Keep in mind that reassurances, such as “It will be OK,” or “It will probably blow over,” may make your friend feel worse. Rather than providing an answer, these kinds of responses may be experienced as minimizing the intensity of the problem.

Be Wary When a Friend Consistently Asks for Advice

Though you may feel gratified that your friend asks for your opinions, if he or she frequently seeks advice about topics that he or she is capable of answering independently, giving advice may actually exacerbate your friend’s problem. Some individuals fear taking personal responsibility for their choices and let other people make decisions for them. Colluding with this dynamic can create dependency as well as stunt your friend’s growth.

Don’t Over-Empathize

When empathizing with a person’s emotion, don’t overdo it. Try to match their emotional state. Over-empathizing may come off as patronizing or insincere or imply that your friend should be more upset than he or she is. Matching your friend’s emotional state conveys that you are really listening. 

Avoid Offering Obvious Solutions

Your friend has likely ruminated over the problem excessively and considered many of the responses you may be prepared to offer. Repeating these solutions may make a person feel more hopeless about his or her situation. In some cases, the problem may be uncontrollable and unsolvable, such as the loss of a loved one.

When Your Friend Does Need Advice, Offer Emotional Support First

There may be times when a friend has not considered all of his or her options. For example, perhaps your friend has a history of selecting poor relationship partners or demonstrates poor study habits that lead to poor academic performance. Giving emotional support with statements such as, “It’s hard being alone,” may be soothing, and reduce defensiveness, allowing your friend to be receptive to feedback.

References:

  1. Goldsmith, D.J. (2000). Soliciting advice: The role of sequential placement in mitigating face threat. Communication Monographs, 67(1), 1-19.
  2. MacGeorge, E.L., Feng, B., and Thompson, E. R. (2008). Good and Bad Advice: How to Advise More Effectively. In M.T. Motley, Studies in Applied Interpersonal Communication, (pp 145-162). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
  3. MacGeorge, E.L., Graves, A.R., Feng, B., Gillihian, S.J., and Burleson, B.R. (2004). The Myth of Gender Cultures: Similarities Outweigh Differences in Men’s and Women’s Provision of aand Responses to Supportive Communication. Sex Roles, 50(3/4), 143-175.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • sunny

    sunny

    July 23rd, 2014 at 11:19 AM

    I am of the opinion that if they ask for advice then sure, have at it. But if they don’t ask, just being there for moral support is good enough.

  • Jodie

    Jodie

    July 23rd, 2014 at 2:32 PM

    I wouldn’t necessarily say that I would offer advice but i might offer my opinion when I asked! Iam not too good at being tactful about those things and I think that it is my duty as a friend to tell someone what I think even if they don’t choose to listen! If I have their best interests at heart then what harm is that doing?

  • Danna

    Danna

    July 24th, 2014 at 11:39 AM

    Nope you don’t because no matter how much they tell you that they value and honer your advice, in the end they are going to do what they want to do and it doesn’t matter whether you agree with it or not. Add to the fact that there some bridges there that could be burnned if you are not careful what you say and those could become wounds that will never be repaired. I don’t care how much they ask, just be there to get them through to the other side, no matter what that side has to offer. I think that sometimes we just want to have someone to talk to, not someone telling us what we should or should not do. No one really ever wnats to have to hear that.

  • Liz

    Liz

    July 24th, 2014 at 1:17 PM

    It’s hard to resist the urge to give advise because you want to be helpful but it’s good to remember that being a good listener can be the best help. I just had a situation where I tried to give advice to a friend and I could tell immediately that my friend became frustrated because she had already tried what I had suggested. Too bad I didn’t read this sooner!

  • elle r.

    elle r.

    July 25th, 2014 at 4:15 AM

    This can all come down to thinking about what you would honestly want from someone if you were facing a similar situation. Do you want someone to tell you what you should do or should feel or would you rather have someone to sit and listen and comfort you if that is what you need?
    I think that if you could step back and put yourself in their shoes for just a moment that you will realize that most people do not need more advice, that they are probably getting that from eevry corner. What they do need though is a little time and sympathy for their situation. It feels so good to know that there is someone out there who is not judging you and only wants the best for you, nothing more or less.

  • Ren

    Ren

    July 26th, 2014 at 12:57 PM

    tricky tricky and sometimes very hard to know where exactly to draw the line

  • glenda c

    glenda c

    July 27th, 2014 at 5:11 AM

    If someone you love is truly in a crisis state then they don’t need advice- they need help. We might at times think of ourselves as so world smart that we can solve any problem, and maybe this is true of ourselves but don’t take that chance with another. You may need to get them in touch with local resources that could be much better trained in getting them the help that they need. It might not also be a bad idea to reach out to other friends and family memebers that they have not so that you begin building this wall of support for them that they may not currently have. Also, how about encouraging them to find someone to talk to so that the crisis does not get even more out of hand? There are so many different ways that you can help without innundating someone with advice that may do more harm than help, and things that they will probably appreciate more in the long term.

  • Dani

    Dani

    July 28th, 2014 at 4:22 AM

    Most of all I want to be with someone who will allow me to be me without feeling like I am being judged or criticized. It is likely that I already feel terrible and that I am already having a difficult time dealing and coping with some pretty traumatic things in my life, and it is also likely that I am going to want to be with a frined who can comfort me. But I am not want their words of wisdom, just maybe a shoulder to cry on from time to time.

  • Maygan

    Maygan

    July 30th, 2014 at 4:09 PM

    I hate it when someone tells me that everything will be okay, to just ride it out and things will calm down soon.
    How is that in any way making me feel better? That makes me feel like I am blowing something out of proportion even though it is really important to me.

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