Editor’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.
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.
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.
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.
- Goldsmith, D.J. (2000). Soliciting advice: The role of sequential placement in mitigating face threat. Communication Monographs, 67(1), 1-19.
- 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
- 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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