13 Tips on How to Comfort a Friend in Need

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

~Leo Buscaglia

Times are challenging. From pandemics to economic downturns to personal crises, most of us know what it means to be going through hard times. When we are struggle, often the first place we turn is to each other–our family and friends for comfort, help, advice or a new perspective.

How to throw a friend an emotional life line

When someone reaches out for comfort, how can we really make a difference instead of making things worse? I know I have been in the situation more than once where I desperately want to help or offer comfort, then end up blurting out something that seems more like sandpaper in an open wound than a comfort.

What’s most comforting to someone? And what’s not? Here are some quick tips on how to comfort someone in need that might help.

Tip #1 REALLY Listen (Be as Present as Possible)

We are all busy, and have lots of important things going on.  That, coupled with the constant distractions of iphones, social media and endless to-do lists can make it challenging to give someone our undivided attention, even when we want to.

When someone is in need of comfort, she is often feeling insecure. She needs to know she and her life matter. If we are talking to someone who keeps glancing at her phone, interrupting, or we can tell she’s not paying attention, we might think she doesn’t care.

Not only is listening essential in figuring out what is really going on with someone we care about, the energy of focused, caring presence is one of the most healing forms of comfort we can offer someone.

If someone has called looking for help or comfort, the first step is to try to be as present as possible, and give this person what she really needs–attention, comfort, kindness and understanding. If it’s not a good time, it’s okay to be honest. The important thing is to show we care and make time when we can.

Tip #2 Imagine Walking in Her Shoes (Just Don’t!)

Sometimes when we want to offer comfort or help a friend who is feeling sad or depressed, we get so into their story that we start to feel as if it is our problem too.

I’m pretty sure I am not the only one who has cried alongside friends about things that have absolutely nothing to do with me.  After all, doesn’t misery love company?

We all know the feeling of wanting to comfort or take away someone’s pain so much that we take it on.  We start to feel it.  We walk in her shoes, and start to see her point-of-view so greatly that our own clarity gets muddled.

Empathy is important because it helps people feel as if we really care.  On the other hand, feeling a friend’s pain too deeply—even more deeply than she feels it herself– can make her feel like she has to prop us up too, yet another burden to bear on an already bad day.

Tip #3 DON’T Overreact (Let Her Lead)

A risk that comes with feeling our friend’s pain too deeply is that we might think things are much worse than they are, and overreact. Have you ever had a friend or family member respond to your complaint with something like, “I can’t believe that! Who do they think they are?!”

While it’s nice to know they are on our side, when someone overreacts to our plight, we not feel comforted but instead might think we aren’t angry, sad or upset enough. While this isn’t the goal when we seek to support or comfort a friend in need, sometimes the things we say can lead them to go even deeper into our emotions, rather than getting much-needed comfort and clarity. When this happens we usually start feeling one of two things. 1) worse about the state of affairs, or 2) misunderstood.

The good news is, when we overreact to another person’s pain, it probably means we really care. So, how can we use our skills of compassion and empathy to be more comforting?

Rather than telling a friend how we feel about what she is saying, we can try really listening to assess how she is feeling, and put a label or word to the emotions she is expressing, like, “That sounds scary.”

If we are not sure what to say, we can try something like, “Hmm…” Simple words like these let her know we are listening and empathizing without becoming part of her story. They also give her supportive space to hear her own truth.

Tip #4 Remember to Breathe (Connect With Your Intuition)

Usually, when someone is struggling and is in need of comfort, she has lost her connection with her inner compass, her inner rudder. Instead of finding someone to guide her ship for her, what she most likely really needs is to find her own way back to her confidence and wisdom within.

If we take a moment to pause and breathe, we can connect with our own intuitive guidance as to what might help her do that. Discerning requires breathing, which we can’t do if we are drowning under the weight of what we imagine our friend’s feelings to be.

By taking a breath, and a step back, we give ourselves the gift of distance, and comfort ourselves. With a little space, we are better equipped to tune in and know what to say to comfort our friend and help her find and follow her own answers.

Tip #5 DON’T Make Her Feel Crazy (Instead, Let Her Know You Know Her Pain)

Instead of showing a friend how deeply we feel for her by sobbing big alligator tears that she then has to help sop up, another way to offer comfort and support can be simply telling her that we know her pain.

We have all felt emotions of being left out, feeling embarrassed, feeling stupid for doing something wrong, or feeling abandonment, loss, shame, disappointment, sadness, anger and fear. When a friend is suffering, we can reassure and comfort her that what she is feeling is completely understandable, and she is not alone.

When going through hard times, a common fear is that something is inherently wrong with us, we are somehow flawed, and that’s why things are going south. No one can know our pain exactly, but it can be helpful to remember that other people have had similar struggles. Simply saying something like, “Oh, I know that feeling. That’s a tough one,” can be helpful.

On the other hand, if someone is feeling something of a magnitude that we have never felt before, it’s important not to fake it, as they might feel misunderstood or belittled. In other words, if a friend has just cried her eyes out about the death of a loved one, now is not the time to nod knowingly, then refer to the time we buried our goldfish.

Even if we really can’t relate, saying something honest like, “I can’t even imagine how challenging that must be” may be all it takes for someone to feel comforted and seen.

Tip #6 DON’T Declare Yourself an Expert About Her Life (a.k.a. It’s Not About You)

Another thing we might do to be comforting that can actually achieve the opposite effect is acting like an expert in our friend’s private experience. If we are particularly close, we might feel entitled to tell her the way things look from our point of view, or to analyze why she is feeling what she is feeling, or to give her advice rather than allowing the wisdom to come from her.

While well-meaning, this impulse can also send the unconscious message, without meaning to, that we don’t respect her insights. Usually this comes from a true desire of wanting to understand, or feeling uncomfortable so we try to move her (and ourselves) away from her emotional experience.

For example, this happens when we say things like, “Oh you feel that way because of your previous relationship.” Or, “Oh I know all about this since my parents were divorced too. You’ll get over it in a week.”

Without meaning to, statements like these may perpetuate our friend’s lack of confidence because we have just told her that we know more about her experience after a brief conversation than she does after a lifetime of living it.  Instead, we can comfort our friend by reflecting back what she is saying with something like, “From what you’re saying, it sounds like…is that right?”

When we can reassure her that what she is experiencing is totally normal, and create a safe space for her to have her insights, we help her strengthen her confidence in herself. After all, she made the choice to talk with us.

Tip #7 Let Her Have Her Moment (DON’T Steal Her Baton)

Nothing is worse than when we are really struggling with something, and instead of being there for us, a friend starts to tell us about her troubles. Suddenly, we are asked to support someone else at the very moment when we needed help. Or, we find ourselves inadvertently in a competition, and the very person we sought out to help us is one-upping us, or dismissing our tragedy as no big deal.

Sometimes this happens without even realizing it. We think we are being helpful by sharing a similar experience to show a friend she is not alone in her feelings. Perhaps we use an example from our own life to make a point and suddenly, before we know it, we are doing the talking and she is doing the listening. Later, we scratch our head and think, “How did that happen?”

Sometimes, we are so preoccupied we don’t even realize we’ve gotten distracted or haven’t been available when someone has really needed us. This can happen when we are stressed or so busy that we aren’t full present. We might say something like, “I am so glad you called. I have been meaning to ask you something.”

If a friend is struggling or depressed, the most comforting thing we can do is to communicate how much she means to us. If she called first, or her troubles are heavy on her heart, it’s her turn. We each need our own moment to be center stage.

Tip #8 DON’T Try To “Fix” The Situation (Instead, Get Curious)

I hate seeing people I care about in pain, so I often just want to patch it all up and make it go away. When I am trying take a friend’s suffering away, I often offer solutions or advice that I think will help her get out of her situation lickety-split (my way, of course).

Often, however, my advice isn’t always what is best for my friend, just my own reaction to trying to feel helpful. When a friend gives us unsolicited advice (or even solicited—I have been known to beg friends to “Just tell me what to do!” in tough situations), getting pat answers or fix-it formulas may seem helpful in the moment, but in the long run can make us forget that we have the ability to figure things out for ourselves.

When we are struggling, we want to feel comforted and on firm ground again, and often hope that someone “out there” can pull us up out of what feels like quicksand. Often what we really need in hard times, however, is to hear our own truth, or to be witnessed and reassured as we solve our own problems (especially if we don’t feel capable of that at the time).

Our friend in need needs to hear herself say, “Hey, there’s a handhold there I can grab.” Then she needs someone to nod in agreement, and stand by, encouraging her to grab it. When we offer the gift of being a witness, we not only help someone rise up from the depths of despair, we allow her to do it herself—giving her the antidote she really needed all along—a renewed sense of self.

Even if our friend comes up with the same exact solution we would have suggested, it’s more helpful if she did the solving rather than us. The next time something similar happens, we may be long gone, but if she knows she has the ability to solve her own problems, that is a gift she can carry with her forever. Over time, she will learn to comfort herself and her confidence will increase.

Tip #9 Help Her See the Glass as Half Full (Her Way!)

When we are really stuck, it can be helpful to have someone reframe what we are experiencing, or shed new light on an old problem. There is always a silver lining. Sometimes we just can’t see it at the time.

On the other hand, when we really want to help, it’s easy to go overboard with the positive thinking pep talk without respect for where someone truly is at in their  process. When someone else gives us a pat “at least there’s a rainbow!” when our life is in a downpour, it can feel as if we are being judged, or as if our sense of reality is in question.

Helping a friend “look on the bright side” can be another version of trying to fix things for them, a cloaked way of telling them that their difficult emotions are bad and should be turned into good or happy ones. We often do this when someone is feeling an emotion that makes us feel uncomfortable.

When we’re not quite at happy-ever-after land yet, being told to look on the bright side may cause us to bury our emotions deeper, or to question our own truth. Often the best way we can offer comfort or help someone see the bright side is to remind them of their own unique gifts and abilities. We can remind them of the strength they have within (and examples of times they’ve overcome challenges in the past) to restore their confidence and hope.

When a friend is able to see us at our best when we feel our worst, that is often just the turnaround we need most. We are often then more able to connect with our own bright perspective and wisdom within.

Tip #10 Set A Big Picture Intention (And Let That Guide You)

Something that can help when we are overcome with a compulsion to fix someone else’s problems is to set a “big picture” intention. This can help us remember what is most important, and guide our reactions.

For example, while chatting with our friend, we might find ourselves wanting her to see the light (our version of the situation) or her own habitual reactions more clearly. Remembering a big-picture goal, such as helping her feel loved no matter what can keep us from responding with impatience, judgment or frustration.

Other “big picture” intentions might include being present, accepting her just as she is, having strong boundaries, showing we care, staying grounded, or offering hope.

We might come up with a symbol or image that helps us easily connect with our highest intention, so that even when our friend’s floundering feels threatening or uncomfortable, we can stay on course. Often by making a simple, silent wish in our own minds, we are more able to respond in ways that are truly comforting.

Tip #11 Ask What She Needs (Rather Than Guessing)

Sometimes, the simplest way to comfort a struggling friend is to ask her what she needs. We might be surprised at what she says. For example, we may be ready to lend a shoulder to cry on, and she really just needs a ride for her kids.

She may just want to vent. Or perhaps she needs a fresh perspective. Maybe she really does want to hear our advice, to get her own ideas flowing.

Once we hear what is needed, we can decide if it is something we can give, or if we are better off directing her elsewhere.

We might want to establish boundaries when we ask. For example, we could say, “I have two available hours tomorrow morning. Are there any errands I can run for you?”

Often just asking what is needed is the first step to someone finding her own answers.

Tip #12 Know Your Limits (Just Let Her Down Gently)

We are all human. There will be times when we are not able to give a friend what she most needs or wants. Perhaps we are not in a positive state of mind. Maybe she is dealing with something that is too close for comfort. Perhaps she is processing a death and we are still grieving the loss of someone close to us.

Maybe we forgot to eat lunch or we are exhausted and just can’t focus. Maybe we are already taking care of too many people, or are running out the door to an appointment.

If possible, it’s always best to set limits with compassion rather than judgment. When someone is asking for help, she is already feeling vulnerable. If we have to say no, it can be helpful to express concern or compassion first, then briefly explain why we can’t help this time, or state what we can offer instead.

Our friend might not want to hear our compassionate “no,” but she will be thankful for our honesty in the long run.

In some cases, our friend may need professional help, especially if her physical well-being is at risk, or she is dealing with an addiction or mental health issue. We should never try to provide therapeutic or healing services to a friend or family member, even if we are trained to do so.

If professional support is needed, we may be able to help lead our friend to the resources or help she needs, even if it’s simply a compassionate nudge in the right direction. In real mental health crises, people are often so overwhelmed, they may be unable to take the steps they need to research and find professional support.

Tip #13 Be Yourself (Rather Than Following a Formula)

Sometimes when we have been called upon to help a friend, we feel out of our element. We may want to help but feel as if we are in over our heads. We might cite some new book or self-help technique we have learned, or try to sidestep the whole situation altogether, feeling woefully inadequate for the task at hand.

Or, if our day job is a professional healer, therapist or coach, we may feel compelled to put our job title hat on, rather than to be authentic as a friend.

The truth is, most people want us—the real deal—rather than some perfect, canned version of us. All we can do is our best (which changes moment to moment) and be as real as we can possibly be.

None of us are perfect. We are all human, and that means we will misstep from time to time. There is no real mistake to be made when it comes to genuine compassion.

It’s okay to honest with our feelings of discomfort. Saying how much we want to help, while also admitting that this is new to us so we may not be saying things “exactly right” can take pressure off you and her.

Most people can figure out things on their own. They just want to know we care, and that we are rooting for them.

We often don’t have to “do” anything.  Usually, all a friend needs to know is that we believe in her.  Just that belief—coming from us—is enough.

First, we have to believe in ourselves and our own ability to be of service, just as we are.

7 Steps to Working With Difficult Emotions

How to Set Boundaries with Someone Who Makes You Crazy

A Meditation for Empathy

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How has someone helped you in a way that really made a positive difference? What helped?

Copyright © 2020 Laurie Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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