When a friend approaches you in the heat of a moment, it can be hard to know what to say. There’s no blanket approach for every person through every crisis, but a few guidelines could help you offer the best support.
Friends going through a crisis often just need someone to vent to and explore their feelings with, but the trick is to listen without sounding like you’re judging. Reframe “why” questions, which can imply you’re questioning their judgment, says Nancy Lublin, CEO of Crisis Text Line, a support line that connects those in a crisis to a counselor via text. “‘Why’ questions are kind of judgy and seem patronizing, but ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions, and ‘who’ and ‘when’ seem genuinely caring and inquisitive,” she says. For instance, ask loved ones how they felt about an experience, rather than why they felt that way.
Open-ended questions that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no” will also help friends dig in to their deepest feelings during a crisis. While your loved ones talk through their replies, practice active listening by focusing on their answers—not distracting yourself by listening for a break or thinking about how to respond, says Michelle Kuchuk, director of training for Crisis Text Line. “Traditionally, we listen for our own agenda—not in a cruel way, but it’s human nature,” she says. “Part of the beauty of active listening is it’s preventive and takes pressure off someone struggling with something, and is not necessarily ever going to fix a problem.” After all, your friends probably just need someone to listen and validate them, rather than hearing you offer potentially unhelpful advice. (Related: This is what good listeners do in conversations.)
When you do respond, avoid telling friends in crisis how they “should” be feeling. For instance, telling loved ones that they should feel strong when they’re feeling weak and ashamed could suggest those low moments aren’t acceptable. “‘Should’ is an invalidation, saying it’s not OK for you to feel these societally ‘weak’ feelings,” says Kuchuk. “If you’re only hearing ‘you should feel great,’ you’re never going to speak the truth again or get that weight off your chest if you think other people will judge you.” (Related: Here are more “helpful” words you should erase from your vocabulary.)
On the other hand, tying those positive feelings to a specific action can feel more genuine. If friends hear “you’re so strong” without an example to back it up, they might never believe it. But if they’ve been explaining how hard it was to talk to someone else, praise them for taking that brave step. “People say, ‘you’re strong and brave,’ but if you don’t feel that way at all and it’s not specific, it can feel really general,” says Kuchuk. “Make sure those words aren’t disingenuous and they’re based on something you can observe and see.” Praising friends on a smart decision or commenting on how proud they sound reaffirms their strength so they can discover how those coping skills help during a crisis, says Lublin.
Mirroring your friends’ emotions can also help prove you’re there to listen without judgment. Just don’t use the same words your friends do, or it will feel like you’re just repeating what they said. “Give a word back in response that’s one level deeper. If they say ‘I had a bad day,’ I’ll say, ‘I’m sorry your day was so rough,’” says Lublin. “It’s a way of showing you really swallowed what they had to say.”
Ultimately, it’s more important for a friend to know you’re there for support than stressing about saying the right thing during a crisis. “If you’re trying to be a therapist or counselor, it can feel uncomfortable for a friend going through something,” says Kuchuk. “Just be a friend and really listen to that person, not with your own agenda but ‘what is this person really going through?’”