What (Not) to Say to a Friend Going Through a Tough Time
Monday, September 17, 2012Tweet
Last week was National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week, which prompted some powerful posts across the blogosphere. One in particular that got me thinking was an article from CNN on talking to someone with a chronic illness.
It occurred to me that I've seen these kinds of articles come up for many different situations -- what not to say to someone struggling with infertility, or grieving the loss of a loved one, or who has cancer. I've seen ones from people who placed a child for adoption, those facing long periods of unemployment, and those struggling to lose weight. Each of these were written from someone's personal experience with that particular situation, but I see common threads running through all of them. I thought perhaps it would be helpful to summarize all these tips.
The details will, of course, vary by situation, but these general guidelines should point you in the right direction for providing support to anyone in your life going through a major struggle. Sometimes the wrong thing will still slip out -- I'm still trying to learn all these lessons myself -- but knowing what's helpful and what's not is a good place to start.
What Not to Say or Do
Don't Minimize the Situation
Big, painful life situations make us naturally uncomfortable, so it can be tempting to try to make the situation seem less threatening. This includes telling someone they don't look sick or that their situation could have been a lot worse or basically anything starting with "At least..." But trying to make a situation sound not as bad is unlikely to make someone feel better; instead, it may come off sounding like you're telling your friend they're overreacting. Their emotions are real, and the last thing they need is to feel bad about feeling bad.
Don't Offer False Certainties
Similar to minimizing the situation, you might hope that a difficult situation is over as soon as possible. This can come out in statements starting with "I'm sure..." I hear this in my job search now: "I'm sure you'll find something soon." Saying "I'm sure you'll get pregnant soon" or "I'm sure you'll beat this cancer" isn't helpful because you can't be sure about those things, so rather than sounding reassuring, it sounds more like, "Let's just think about when this will be over so we don't have to talk about how hard it is right now."
Don't Try to Solve the Problem
If you've gone through the exact same situation (or you're a professional), then at the very least listen to what they've tried first, and then you can ask whether they've considered the treatment or support group or doctor that you found helpful. But if not, realize that this person knows a lot more about their situation than you do and has probably already heard about and possibly even tried that thing you read about in a magazine or that your sister's coworker had such success with. Acting like you're an expert on someone's situation makes it sound like you think they're unable to get help on their own and also puts you in a role (problem-solver, doctor) other than the one you need to be playing (friend, support, confidant). Even comments about attitude -- "You just need to relax!" or "Think positive!" -- can be irritating by both minimizing the problem and making it sound like it's your friend's fault that they're having a difficult time because they're not "relaxed" or "positive" enough.
Don't Rush to Empathize...
This isn't the time to pull out your own horror stories and compare. Even if you've been through the same thing, your friend may have a completely different experience or different feelings about it. When you rush to assure your friend by saying, "I know exactly how you're feeling," you may make them feel unwelcome to share what they actually are feeling. Once they've had a genuine opportunity to tell you what they're going through, it can be appropriate to share that you experienced something similar if they don't already know that, but leave it up to your friend whether they want to ask questions about your experience rather than assuming they want advice or to compare notes.
...Or to Differentiate Yourself
It sounds like a compliment to say "I could never do that" or "You're so much stronger than I am." But until you're going through a difficult situation, you don't know how you'll react. This is in the same vein as "God only gives us as much as we can handle." It makes it sound like this is only happening to your friend because they are an unusually strong or brave or patient person -- how unfair! It can also come off as a subtle withdrawal of support: "You've got this. You're tough. You'll get through it fine on your own."
What to Say or Do
Admit Your Lack of Understanding
Your friend isn't coming to you because they expect you to have all the answers. It's OK to say, "I can't imagine what you're feeling right now, but I'm ready to listen if you want to tell me." Or "I really don't know what to say, but I'm here for you."
Be a Listening Ear
This is not the same as pressuring someone to talk about what they're going through. This is letting it be known that if your friend wants to talk, you are there to listen without comment. This is listening to your friend's worries and pain without trying to come up with a quick fix or platitude. Listen to understand what's going on, how your friend is feeling, and how you can best help, if at all. If you don't have time right then to give your friend your undivided attention, you can say something like, "I want to hear how you're doing. Can we have lunch this week?"
Validate Your Friend's Feelings
If your friend needs to cry, give them permission and a box of tissues, rather than saying, "Oh, don't cry." There are probably many people in their life right now who will ask "How are you?" and don't actually want to hear the answer if it's not "fine." It can make it seem wrong to be sad, frustrated, angry, tired, in pain, or whatever they're feeling. Be the person who doesn't try to minimize or change their feelings, but who tells them whatever they're feeling is totally understandable. Saying something like "That sounds really rough" can validate that they're not overreacting to be upset about the situation.
Offer Specific Help
At least for me, I hear something like, "Well, if there's anything I can do to help, just let me know" as an insincere conversation ender and not as a genuine offer for help. If you sincerely want to do something to help, make a specific offer: "I'd be happy to bring you dinner tomorrow night. Is there anything you can't eat?" or "How about I watch your kids some day this week so you can [rest, get out of the house]? What day would work best for you?" If you don't know what would be most helpful, ask sincerely, "What is the most helpful thing I could do for you right now?" That's much better than a vague "Let me know if there's anything I can do." And follow through on anything you offer!
Talk about Other Things, Too
You don't want to completely ignore a difficult situation, but it's also not helpful to make every conversation with your friend about their situation. If you've expressed how sorry you are, given them space to talk, and offered help, you don't need to keep bringing it up at every opportunity. When I had mono, I got so sick of my coworkers looking at me like I was going to die -- I wanted to be treated like a normal employee and not make my health the topic of every conversation. If your friend is the kind of person who needs to talk about their problems and emotions all the time, you'll probably know. Otherwise, create the safe space for them to talk, but treat them as the same person they've always been, with a variety of interests and aspects of their life.
Have you been through a difficult life situation? What did your friends or family members say that you found helpful?