How to REALLY Help a Friend (27 Tips)

Last night, I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, surrounded by complete strangers at our local community center. I was at an event focused on offering peer-to-peer support to friends in need, with a focus on preventing suicide.
I was there primarily on behalf of my kids. Like most teens, they are often in the position of supporting friends through life’s ups and downs. As the program unfolded, however, I had my own AH-HA moment. I realized that something every one of us must do, regardless of our age, is to interact with others going through hard times.
There’s no getting around it. In fact, most of us interact with people who are struggling several times a day, often without realizing it.

Teens Can Show Us the Way

The community event began with a panel of experts reminding us that changes in emotional health are as common as changes in physical health. We need support every now and then.
Then, we broke into groups. I was assigned to a group with several teenagers, mid-age adults like me, and a few older men with white hair. We were all there to learn.

Was I Ready for This?

At first, as we jockeyed our seats and created a circle, I felt awkward.
The young teenage facilitator took charge, introducing herself.
She threw out this question to spark a conversation:
What’s something you’ve said to another person when they’ve been having a hard time (or that something has said to you) that has really helped?
At first we all sat in silence, staring at each other.
Then, slowly, one by one, we began sharing.
By the end of the night, I felt as if I had had one of the greatest conversations of my life.
Most of all, I was struck by how incredibly wise each person in the circle was—most especially, the teens.

What I Learned

You know when you hear something you’ve heard before, only this time you really “get” it?
While many of the tips people shared (see below) are skills I’ve been working in my own relationships for many years, something about hearing it through the lens of others’ personal experiences made all the difference. Hearing what an impact these skills have made me all the more committed to practicing them.

I was once again reminded that true transformation doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to change patterns and learn new skills, sometimes decades. But, bit by bit, when we’re committed, consistent, and willing to experiment and learn as we go, change does happen.
I’ve put what I learned last night from my new friends, many less than half my age, in this blog article, in case their tips also helpful for you.

How to REALLY Help Others

Here’s what the others in the group shared has worked for them.

Practice With Strangers

  • Be genuinely interested in others, even complete strangers. We can practice this by sparking authentic conversations, like at the grocery store.
  • Ask how others are doing. Be willing to share something small about your own struggles, like if you’re having a bad day.
  • Send the message that we all have good days and bad days, and you’re the type of person who is comfortable talking about both.

Show You Care and Respect Them

  • When someone is hesitant to open up, one strategy is to notice something different about them. Ask them about it. Let them know you see them, are interested in them, and really care about all of them.
  • Listen attentively. Practice really being present and respectful.
  • Practice empathy. Get curious about what it might feel like to be the other person in that moment.
  • Recognize that even people who seem like they have it all together may be struggling underneath the surface.

It’s Not Your Job to Fix Others’ Problems

  • Take care of your own emotional well-being. Know that the other person’s emotional well-being is not your responsibility. You can be kind, caring, accepting, and a good listener without doing their emotional work for them.
  • Don’t try to fix something you view as in need of repair unless they directly ask for your help with it.
  • Let people come up with their own solutions. Ask questions that help them to figure out things for themselves. People are far more likely to take a helpful action if they’ve come up with it on their own.
  • Affirm their intuition and problem-solving abilities, especially when they are brainstorming ideas.
  • As a matter of course, ask if they want you to just listen, or brainstorm. If you have an idea for a solution, always ask if they want to hear it before sharing it.

Actively Listening Requires Focus

  • Check in with them to make sure you’re hearing them right. You might mirror back what they are saying like: “That sounds really challenging.” Or ask: “it sounds like you are feeling really overwhelmed right now, is that right?”
  • Be willing to be wrong. Make sure your goal isn’t to be right or to be seen as helpful. Keep it about them.
  • Ask what they need and how you can help. Keep it open-ended. Leave it up to them. They might ask for something you would have never thought to offer.

Be Authentic, Honest, and Kind

  • Admit when you feel like you’re out of your comfort zone. Let them know that you want to be supportive, even if in the moment, you’re not sure how to do that. Let them know you genuinely care.
  • Be authentic, truthful, and kind.

Be Accepting

  • Normalize their feelings. In other words, don’t say anything that makes them feel wrong, judged, or flawed for feeling the way they are feeling. Tell them their feelings are valid. Even if you don’t fully understand or the reasons are not clear, there is always a good reason for everything we feel, especially big emotions.
  • Be careful not to normalize their feelings in a way that belittles the magnitude of what they might be feeling in the moment. Don’t diminish their experience or act as if it’s no big deal. If you can’t imagine or don’t understand what they are experiencing, you can still respect and honor it. Don’t pretend that you know how they feel if you don’t.
  • Even if they’re not ready to talk about a struggle they appear to be having, stay connected and available. Talk about other things. Focus on accepting them just as they are even if in the moment that means they are resistant to help. Make yourself approachable so they know they can come to you if they need help in the future.

Keep It About Them

  • Don’t bring up your own stories from your own life or other people, even if it seems like the perfect example. Keep it about them, not about you.
  • Pay attention to your intuition. If you haven’t heard from someone in a while, reach out and check in. Sometimes just knowing you are there and that you care helps.
  • Don’t take their silence or rejection personally. Their reactions are always about them.

Be Kind When Setting Boundaries

  • If someone reaches out, even if you are busy, don’t avoid them. Take a minute to let them know you care. Return their text or call. Be present and listen attentively, even if for a moment. We can all spare a minute.
  • Healthy boundaries are good. When setting them, be kind. The most important thing is that people know you care and respect them, even if you aren’t able to help or give them what they want.
  • Encourage others to get support from many different places. We all need multiple sources of support. No one can be there for us all the time, and that’s okay.
  • Sometimes people’s problems may trigger our own past traumas, emotional unrest, or feelings of being unsafe. It’s important to take care of your own well-being and recognize when you need support, or when the other person may need more support than you can give.
  • Always ask for help from a professional or another adult if you think it is needed by you or someone in distress. There are many more resources available for support than most of us realize. Often a well-trained, caring stranger (whether a trained volunteer or professional) can make all the difference. You are never alone.
  • You are never responsible for another person’s choices, no matter what.

Listen, Listen, Listen

  • We make the biggest positive difference through active listening. Let people know you are genuinely interested in them, and that they are lovable just as they are, no matter what they are experiencing in their lives. That includes you!

Staying Leads to Wisdom

In addition to all their great tips, I was also struck by how staying with ourselves and others through times of struggle leads to incredible wisdom. I was also reminded that sometimes people appear the least “expert-like” have the most to teach us.

It’s never easy to see others struggling or suffering, especially a close friend or loved one. What’s something someone’s done that has helped you in the past? What have you done that has seemed helpful when a friend has needed support? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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