Tips for talking to a friend going through dark times

Confession: I’m actually terrible at giving hugs.

I’ve always been pretty sensitive to the things people glibly say in conversation, and it kind of sucks when an unintentional fib cracks open a gulf of misunderstanding between two friends. There were several times in the past year where I found myself trying to navigate some sensitive situations, namely doing what it means to “be there” for a friend going through hard times. Even though I know I’m not the one to solve their problems, during times like those, I still feel a strong sense of responsibility and a desire to help, even if it means that I just volunteer my shoulder to someone for two hours. You could technically cry on any surface you please, at everyone’s convenience, really, but at least my human shoulder would be warmer than a wooden shelf or something.

Let me try to analyze the things I do or say that make it easier for the people I’m talking to feel heard. I’m no trained professional, but I’ve had friends before. These tips, which are meant to be considered when a friend is going through really dark times (grief, depression, etc.), seemed to have worked fairly well for me in the past:

  • Banish the should’s in the conversation. When talking about how they feel, acknowledge that whatever they feel is legitimate. Whether those emotions really should be less dramatic, or should be handled a different way, or should be more socially appropriate is irrelevant at this time.
  • Don’t say that you know exactly how they feel. Because you probably don’t. And this conversation is meant to be about them, not you. I noticed that people tend to treat conversation as orchestrated volleying matches, where each expression of sympathy or compassion becomes a springboard for launching into discussion about one’s own problems. I know we’re all interested in ourselves, but that isn’t very helpful.
  • If you’re trying to deliver an apology for something you did that made them upset, acknowledge and apologize about the pain that you’ve caused them, not how much you regret your own actions. Again, it’s not all about you, but about them.
  • If you seek to give advice or propose a solution, frame it about yourself. As a friend, not a therapist, you’re not there to prescribe a solution or tell them how they should behave or suggest that you understand their situation better than themselves. Nevertheless, you might still have suggestions to offer… something I think you should frame sensitively as something you (would) have done for yourself in a similar situation. This is a good opportunity to briefly share with them about a similar struggle you might have faced in the past and how you may have pulled through it. Don’t think of yourself as the benevolent hero who will save your friend from despair (read: self-centered), but rather be the supportive shoulder that your friend needs to help (him/her)self.

Writer, Cog-Neuro Research Assistant @ Yale. Presenting my thoughts about self-development and life as a former college student ||