How many times have you offered advice to a friend when they, emotionally flustered, came to confide things to you? How many times have you been offered advice when all you wanted was to be heard out? Both the scenarios are extremely probable and it would be no surprise if you have been in either of the situations. A user on Facebook, Brenen K Lagmon recently shared a post that addresses these questions and also provides a list of what not to do when. Lagmon, a resident of Vietnam, writes “DON’T give advice unless they ask for it,” “DON’T try to find the ‘Silver Lining,” “DON’T Generalise,” “DON’T make it about you,” “DON’T be judgmental,”. In case you are wondering what are the things you should do, read the post below. Indianexpress.com has reached out to him for comments.
Yesterday a friend called me asking for emotional support. She was clearly in an anxious headspace and was dealing with a flurry of emotions. Instantly, I started to respond to her in the way I felt I could help her: giving her advice, sharing my experience, and talking about what she should do. I noticed something: she became quiet. She called me in a state of despair, and instead of learning about why, I had commandeered the conversation with all of my well-intentioned insight.
I found myself, then, making a concerted effort to re-center her and her feelings, and slowly she started to open up and talk through her feelings. By the end, she thanked me for being supportive, and I could tell we had grown closer.
In the same day, I became anxious and reached out to a friend for support. When I started to get advice in return, I remembered how this was something I have encountered many times in my life. I have had many periods of depression, anxiety, and grief, and often found most people were unequipped to be supportive so I would keep my feelings bottled up, further perpetuating cycles of anxious thoughts.
It was then that I was inspired to share this list of things that people should and should not do to be supportive. I know no one is perfect, and even I am very guilty of doing things on the ‘Do Not’ list. However, if we make it a goal to try our best to be better and empathetic listeners and strive to follow things on this list, we can begin to heal in a world where anxiety and depression are on the rise.
First, the don’ts:
1. DON’T give advice unless they ask for it.
Advice is often very well-intentioned, but it is also often unwarranted. If you jump straight into advising, you may be assuming the person needing support does not already know what you are telling them. Instead of empowering or validating them, you are probably just making them feel as if their feelings are stupid or trivial. If you act like there is some magical cure for feelings of pain and grief, you reinforce the idea that their feelings are the result of them doing something wrong. In reality, they are just their body’s natural reaction to loss, pain, or struggle.
2. DON’T try to find the ‘Silver Lining.’
We often try to think of the silver lining or the positive things that we assume the feeler is not seeing. Again, this may be well-intentioned, but it does not ameliorate feelings. Our default to this reaction is based on the conflation of feelings and thoughts: that somehow our way of thinking is shaping our feelings and if we just think more positively the bad emotions will go away. News flash: Feelings and thoughts are separate.
Thinking positively does not erase the pain. If you find yourself starting with, “Hey, well at least….” “Look at it this way!” or “On the Brightside…” you further diminish their feelings of pain, and make them feel lonelier.
3. DON’T Generalise
Another good meaning thing we commonly do is generalizing the person’s experience. As a listener, it feels like this is the right thing to do: showing a person that their experience is shared should calm their feelings. However, this can sometimes backfire. Generalizing makes the feeler feel as if they do not have sovereignty to their own experience and their own feelings, that their awareness of how unique their pain is might (again)be just a product of bad thinking. Sure, others might have experienced something similar, but knowing that does not make the sufferer’s experience and pain just disappear.
Specifically generalizing the future. Saying, “you will find someone,” or,”you will get better,” is not always true. You may not know the future, and that generalization may create false hope and further circumstances for negative feelings.
4. DON’T make it about you
When someone comes to you for emotional support, hold off on sharing your stories. You may think that sharing your story will give them insight into how to cope, but not everyone is like you. When you share your story, it can again diminish theirs. I have had people tell me things like,” Well, welcome to the club.” “We have all been there before”, when confronted with my pain. And it makes me feel resentful, not any better as this is another subtle form of dismissiveness.
5. DON’T be judgmental
One of the least helpful things you can do is judge a person’s thoughts or feelings. One of the most hurtful things for a person who has taken up the courage to share with you is for them to be told, ” you’re just being dramatic.” or” youre just thinking too hard about this.” Saying things like these are just an easy way for you to cop out of actually going through the process of listening. Listening takes effort whereas tagging someone as dramatic is effortless, so we often do this in an attempt to deflect away from meaningful conversation and stay in our own comfortable lane. That doesn’t help anyone but yourself.
6. DON’T do only the bare minimum.
There is a list of unspoken bare minimums out there. Saying “Sorry for your loss” or “My condolences, this too shall pass” is like reading phrases from a script from a book for English learners. There is no heart behind the saying when you hear it from everyone. If you really care about your loved one, push the envelope even further, take that extra step to make that person’s pain feel important.
Then the Dos:
1. DO ask gently probing questions
This is the best thing you can do: create space for the person to share what they are feeling and experiencing. When you reframe your approach from advising to LISTENING, the space for transformation opens up. “What are you missing about them?” “Could you tell me more about your feelings?” “What is it like for you?” This lets the speaker know that it is safe to share their feelings, they do not need to defend them or feel like they are just crazy, but their feelings are real and someone genuinely cares about them.
2. DO be willing to learn
Let go of your generalizations and advice. Instead of thinking like a lecturer, become a student. Pretend that the person you are listening to is actually there to teach you. This makes you receptive to their experience and takes away dismissive behaviors.
3. DO validate their feelings.
Instead of making generalizations about their situation, you can verbally validate what that person is sharing. “Wow, that is really tough.” “I can’t imagine what you are going through.” “ That is seriously so sad.” Statements like those let the feeler know that you see their pain, you acknowledge their struggle, and they are not crazy for feeling crazy emotions. It lets them know that someone knows they are not actually alone, there is someone they can count on.
4. DO be willing to face all of it with them
There is often a sea of many different emotions that underlie pain and grief. Anger, sadness, despair, pain, and even happiness can be involved, making the feeler extremely disoriented. When they begin to share their feelings, they begin to unravel those messy complex emotions. Be willing to give them space to work through everything, don’t shy away or ask them to stop because it makes you uncomfortable. Hold their hand and walk through the shadows with them.
5. DO make a concerted effort to show up
No one will overcome his or her depression or anxiety in a day or a conversation. If you really care about that person make it a goal to check in on them. Let the conversation be long-standing and continuous. Hold that person’s hand and continue along this journey with them. When you think of them, check in and ask how they are doing. Let them know that you share a proximity to their pain and you are a real resource for emotional support. And as you learn more and more about how to be supportive to them, you will become an even better confidant and ally, and they will learn more about you and one day, when the tables have turned and you need help, they will be there for you too.
Do you agree with this? Tell us in the comments below.