[Crossposted from my blog]

There’s no shortage of pain, tragedy and loss in the world. And if you’re anything like me, you don’t always know how to be helpful when a loved one is going through the worst of it.

Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to get better at that.

I’ve read a couple dozen therapy textbooks, I’ve done four hundred or so hours of client-centered counselling, and I’ve been in a handful of other official and unofficial helping roles. By no means am I an expert, but I sure know more than I used to.

For my first blog post, I wanted to write something that past-me might have found helpful when he started stumbling through it all. In time, there’s so much more that I want to say on the art of supporting others. But for now...

Here are four fundamentals for helping someone who’s having a rough time:

1 - Simply listen. It helps far more than most of us expect.

When a catastrophe happens, it can change the whole landscape of one’s world. The tectonic plates shift, things break, and everything comes to look bewilderingly different to how it did before.

In the aftermath, we may have no good choice other than to stop, watch the buildings fall, and slowly map out this strange new world we’re in. Perhaps only then we can move forward.

Unfortunately, processing such big changes purely in one’s own head is… hard. Thoughts are ephemeral and it’s easy to think in circles, to get stuck, to have blind spots, to ruminate.

This is where listening comes in. A good listener can be of much help with that working through process. Patiently, the listener can keep track of where a conversation is getting stuck, gently bring up the things that are being avoided or missed, help bring attention towards what is most important, and bring a genuine sense of connection that makes all the bad stuff a little easier to bear.

As simple as it seems, having someone there to just listen may be exactly what the person in front of you needs.

2 - Rather than focusing on the bright side, sit with the other person’s real feelings.

This next point comes straight from Brené Brown. I’ve been shown the same video of her so many times in different training courses that I’m starting to get Stockholm syndrome. All the same, what it says is important.

Often when we’re trying to support another person, we try to get them to focus on the bright side. Standing separately from the other’s experience, we attempt to offer them silver linings.

“You may have failed this class… but at least your other grades are good.”

“Your partner left you… but at least you’re free to find someone who’ll treat you better.”

“You may have a disease with no cure… but at least there are lots of scientists working to find new treatments.”

People use these silver linings with the intention to help the other person view their situation in a more positive light. Unfortunately, in most cases, this does not end up bringing them any relief.

When you’re going through a tough time, talking to someone who only focuses on the nicer aspects of your bad situation most often just feels disorienting. This happens because, at some level, you’re being told that your problems are not as bad as you think they are. Instead of feeling reassured, you feel like your grip on reality is being questioned. The good intentions get lost in translation.

Luckily, there’s an alternative that really does let us bring some relief to others’ suffering: Empathy.

Rather than try to look on the bright side, it’s helpful to sit with the other person in their pain. To attempt to really understand, at an emotional level, the whole landscape of what they’re going through. When we manage to do this, it brings a genuine sense of connection, and a feeling that one doesn’t have to brave all those storms alone.

Furthermore, if the other person has been misunderstood or ignored for long enough, it can bring a massive sense of relief to finally be seen. Empathy is the polar opposite of gaslighting - it makes people feel sane.

My optimistic brain finds it way too easy to focus on the bright side. But when I manage to use empathy instead, allowing myself to truly see the person in front of me, it tends to work a whole lot better.

3 - Unless advice is explicitly wanted, give advice less often than you’re tempted to.

Watching our loved-ones suffer can at times be very frustrating. You see that they’re in a bad situation, you know a simple solution, and you just wish they’d follow your advice to fix it already!

For better or worse, you’re not alone when your advice goes unheeded. One of the first things that any therapist learns is that clients don’t follow advice remotely as often as hoped. It’s a normal part of human nature to not act based on someone else’s judgement.

The only people who I’ve heard of who manage to get their advice (willingly) followed most of the time are the super charismatic, the cult leaders, and certain religious leaders. Highly devoted followers may be prepared to accept their leader’s advice without the usual skepticism. But unless you’re literally-a-prophet-or-something, this kind of power is likely to cause a lot of harm. So perhaps it’s a good thing that those we wish to help don’t follow every word of us People Who Know Better.

The truth is, good advice is rarely self-apparent. Even a seemingly simple suggestion that you want to give is, in all likelihood, based on a thousand different experiences from your life, many of which you don’t even remember anymore. A person who hears your advice will, in all likelihood, disagree with it based on a thousand different experiences from their life.

Meanwhile, even if the one receiving the advice has had less experience in life overall, the experience that they do have is extremely relevant. They know what solutions have and haven’t worked for them in the past. They’ve experienced the hidden barriers that are hard to see from the outside. They know their own values. And they’ve felt first-hand the mental health complications that may make every step more difficult in real, deeply physiological ways.

Finally, even if the advice we have to give really is excellent, there is only so far we can usefully go in trying to advocate for it. It’s common for communication between loved-ones to get stuck in a cycle of frequent advice-giving, followed by frustration on both sides both when the advice isn’t taken up. Those cycles of frustration sadly make the situation worse if we fall into them, no matter how good the underlying advice is.

Putting all this together, it makes sense to approach any advice that we want to give - especially unsolicited advice - with a sense of humility.

4 - Support the positive initiative that the other person takes, even if it is different to what you would do.

Sometimes, it seems as if a loved one is so stuck, so trapped in their ways, or so depressed that they’ve stopped having any sense of initiative whatsoever. But that initiative - that spark of life and agency and strength - is always there. Even if it’s small and fragile and hidden away.

I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who are beaten down in life and all of them have some source of strength.

Perhaps your loved one doesn’t leave their bed all day, has an impressive stack of physical and mental illnesses, and barely ever talks to anyone. But if you pay close attention, you can still see those sparks.

Perhaps you’ll see it in how they love their family; how they have great empathy for others who are struggling; how they reach out for help in their online communities; how they’re passionate about rock music; how once in a blue moon they still manage to gather up all the bricks tied to their feet and find the energy to leave the house despite it all.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing some people pull their lives back from the brink. And without fail the little things that they do of their own will - those little sparks - are an important part of the process.

Inch by inch, change starts to occur. Positive feedback loops begin to happen that make moving forward easier and more satisfying, doors start to open that didn’t even seem to exist before, and somewhere along the line, those sparks inside grow into a full on fire.

We can’t control what our loved ones value or where they put their initiative. But no matter how small some of their steps may seem, we can sure as hell be encouraging of their attempts to flourish.

Conclusion

There are plenty of complicated ideas out there that helping professionals use to aid others. All the same, some of the most central skills that are relied on are so simple that pretty much anyone can apply them.

It would be beautiful for the world, I think, if these skills became more common knowledge.

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13 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:37 PM

Good post. I was exposed to very similar advice a few years ago and tried to put it into practice when my partner's father died soon after. During her long periods of grief she'd occasionally apologize for dragging me into this, and I'd simply reassure her that pain is the right thing to feel and that I'd be with her as she let grief take its course. I cringe at the thought of giving advice.

This generally gets at a cbt/mindfulness/stoicism truth. You can't stop pain, you can only change your relationship to it. When you stub your toe, no amount of rationalization is going to make your nerves stop reporting damage. All you can do is breathe and wait it out. Wrestling with the feeling will just aggravate it and add anxiety to the pain. Giving advice implies there's a way around a pain, which there usually isn't, and unintentionally implies it's the person's fault for suffering.

We all know this, but it bears repeating that empathy is hard. Nobody likes seeing a loved one suffer, and dwelling on it doesn't make it easier. It's ok to hurt too.

This is an excellent summary of active listening skills. Just listening and empathizing is pretty hard. Most people want to help immediately, and the most common pitfall is to focus on problem-solving, pushing one's own ideas and unsolicited advice. There are several places online where one can vent and/or learn to listen to others. 7 cups used to be pretty good some years ago, though its for-profit character conflicts with the core mission. For those who are used to Discord, Heartsbox might be worth a try.

More helpful than advice often, is to describe/summarize back to them what you understood about their explanation of their situation. This slight reframe of a second perspective is often much more helpful for them generating their own advice, which they are dramatically more likely to implement than anything coming from the outside.

How can I deliberately practise empathetic listening? When a situation comes up in life I forget everything — I would like to train the empathy reflex so that's the first thing I turn to when trying to help.

Along with finding structured opportunities, you can practice this attitude in most conversations with colleagues, friends, family, and partners. People complain a lot. And when they do, you can practice active listening and empathy. I believe that making this a goal of every conversation has changed my habits over time, so that I do more useful things when it's important.

That's a big question. Some notes on what worked for me:

- The thing that has helped me the most was finding a volunteer role that involves empathic listening. It gave me a lot of chances to practice. Plus, because it was a new & separate space from the rest of my life, I was more flexible to intentionally choose the habits I wanted to cultivate there before old habits got locked in. I believe doing something like that would help a lot, though it is a relatively time/effort intensive thing to do. 

- If you don't have the time for something like a volunteer role, then there are other ways to practice. Having actual face-to-face practice conversations are very useful if you are in a position to do them. Therapy trainings frequently make use of role plays - they really seem to work for intentionally trying to build the right habits. Even without having access to specific trainings or people you trust to practice with, there are groups out there that facilitate the practice of empathy - I hear good things about circling (though I don't have a group nearby so haven't tried it), I've tried out NVC groups, I've practiced listening in therapy groups, etc. 

- If you know exactly what to do, but just forget in the moment, maybe trigger-action plans could help. Or having easy to see reminders written in your phone wallpaper/somewhere else prominent.

- If part of the problem is not being confident about what actions to take in-the-moment, the 'classic' author to read on empathic listening is Carl Rogers. Books such as 'A Way of Being' are great. 

When a situation comes up in life I forget everything

Personally I find this type of forgetfulness occurs alongside a sense of urgency; experiencing someone suffering and feeling a need to instinctively offer assistance quickly.

In my view, the reflex to train in this situation is slowing things down so as to take time and consider the approach you want to take, while still being present for the struggling person in question.

It just so happens that the the types of communication you might use to "stall for time while you think about your approach," are the same sorts of communication styles you might ultimately wish to employ given further consideration and recall.

Saying things like: "wow that sounds incredibly challenging, I'm sorry you're going through that" , repeating their problem and experience back to them in your own words, and encouraging them continue talking.

All great ways to stall, giving you lots of time to slow down and think in order to remember to apply empathetic listening skills.

In trying to understand people's feelings, I tend to ask a lot of questions about the situation so I can understand, but I worry a lot about it turning into an interview and maybe people don't like explaining themselves a lot when they're upset? But I don't really know what to do. Advice?

[My comments are less refined than the main post, so take ‘em with a little extra skepticism. All the same, I think this might help.]

Sometimes people don’t want to talk, and that’s ok. But if the conversation turns into an interview when they do want to talk, a few different things could be happening.

- Some people rely too much on using closed questions. Using open questions instead can open up the conversation.

- Some people rely too much on asking questions in general. There are other types of things that we can say as the listener which may be worth using more of. Reflection of feelings (“It sounds like you’re feeling overwhelmed”) and reflection of meaning (“I’m hearing that this job really mattered to you”) can be surprisingly good, for instance.

- In general, the more attuned we are to the core meaning of what the other person is saying, beyond the surface facts, the less likely that the conversation will feel surface-level or like an interview. 

good intro post. I'm interested in what you'd go into if going beyond what is common sense to some (not all) people

This is something I've been meaning to learn for a while, but haven't known where to start.
Thank you for putting at all together so nicely :)

Great points. Perhaps an acceptable substitute for advice is offering help. For example: "Would you like me to go to the doctor's with you?" Of course, offers for help shouldn't be given in a way that sounds like advice. And listening/empathy should probably come first.

Beautifully expressed. It is always reassuring to read stuff which agrees with one's understanding! My thoughts frequently veer between, 'I need to say something or watch while they fall deeper into that particular abyss,' and 'Say nothing. Trust. They will work this stuff out.' This post allows for pause, and for me to focus more on what humility looks like.