How to Help When Someone is Struggling
Family, friends, acquaintances, often ask me how they can help someone they know struggling:
“What should I do? I don’t know what to say. What would you do?”
Mental health and life's challenges are complicated. Hardships don’t happen overnight and the solutions won’t be simple. In fact, as we approach a loved one who is struggling, we are more likely going to need to change the way we do things rather than telling the other person what they should.
Helping Techniques that Fall Flat:
When someone asks me “How can I help?” an explanation of all of the ways they have already tried often follows. Below are the top three helping techniques people try that generally fall flat.
1.) I’ve Been There…
“My friend is really depressed. I told her about the time that I was really depressed and told her what I did to get better.”
Part of a relationship comes from relating our experiences to others that we love. A hardship you have overcome may look similar to something your friend is going through, but it can never be the exact same situation. When an individual is flooded with anxiety, depression, or a relationship on the rocks this technique can only help up to a certain point. Yes it is good to know they are not alone in their experience AND they need to be affirmed that their situation is unique, and therefore requires unique solutions.
2.) Advice... “I keep giving them advice, but they just won’t take it” -or- “They keep coming to me and I’ve run out of advice or ideas…” Here’s the thing with advice, usually by the time someone is asking for help or it’s clear they need help, they’ve already thought about or tried all of the suggestions that come to mind. So when we give advice it can be exhausting for someone to explain why that won’t work or hasn’t worked and can then push them further into feeling like their efforts are failures. The truth is, every person has the ability to discover the answers that work for them. Our job is not to tell people what to do, it’s to give them room to discover it for themselves. 3.) Silver-linings & Bright-sides
“I tried to show them the bright side and they just can’t see it.” As human beings, we need to be able to express and process the entire range of human emotion. That includes sadness, anger, fear… There is often a misconception that the more you give voice to an emotion the more space it will take up in your heart/mind. Therefore by focusing on ‘positive’ emotions rather than ‘negative’ you will increase one and decrease the other. Anger, fear, sadness, are all helpful emotions if we use them to process what is going on around us and find solutions. You can’t find solutions to a problem if you can only talk about it’s silver lining.
What You Can Do:
Now that we’ve gone over what hasn’t worked, what CAN be helpful? Beware, these two things often feel like you aren't actually ‘doing’ anything…
1.) Be Present and Available When someone is struggling often the most powerful thing we can do is to simply be present or available. In the storms of life, our presence is how we can communicate to those we love that they are not alone. Being available or being present does not mean that you have to DO anything and there is a subtle difference between the two:
Present: being in view or at hand* Being present is simply being physically in the same room, in view, at hand. This means showing up even if there isn’t an ‘agenda of helping’. If your teenager has a game, go and make sure they see you. If your co-worker eats in the break room, eat lunch with them. If your spouse is sitting on the front porch sit with them, rest your hand on theirs… If there isn’t an easy event or ongoing activity to plug into, schedule something. Send them dates that work for you, make it clear you’re not ‘just saying’ you want to get together, you are ready to give them time on your calendar. Find a way to be in the same space and gently let them know “I know you’re having a hard time, I’m here.” Full stop. And do it over and over again.
Available: willing to do something or assume a responsibility* Sometimes it’s not possible to be physically present. And sometimes a person isn’t ready or able to have you with them. In these cases, let them know that you are available to them: Make a verbal shift from: “Let me know if you need me/if I can do anything” to “What can I do to help?” Ask for specific ways you can support them. If they tell you there isn’t anything, tell them that you are available if they think of something: “I want you to know, if you need me I’m here, send a text, call me, shoot me an email…” Being available means communicating: Although I might not be in the same space, count me in as someone you can call on for support. I'll be there.
2.) Listen Well:
Reflect, Summarize, Clarify, and Convey Understanding
The next thing you can do to help is to listen well. Our world is so fast paced and busy, it’s hard to do the quiet work of listening. But when someone is struggling, one of the greatest needs of their heart is to be heard. When you prepare to enter a conversation remind yourself “I am listening to understand, not to respond.” It is an act of the will to turn off the inner dialogue that is playing in our mind and turn on focused listening. But you will need to, because remember, you don’t want to give your experience, advice, or silver-linings, you want to give understanding and to do that, you need to listen. Here’s how you can communicate that you have understood what they said:
This is as simple as it sounds, repeat back what they said:
“You’re saying…” “What I’m hearing is…”
“I hate school and I never want to go back.” ---> “You’re saying you really hate school right now and you don’t want to go back.
If they have given you a whole bunch of information at once and there is a pause in the conversation, take all of what they said and try to summarize what you heard.
“That’s a lot, let me see if I’ve got all of it….
* Important note: Resist the urge to layer your understanding on top of it:
“You’re saying school is really hard for you right now….”
Nope, that's not the word they used, they said they hate school. It's a subtle difference, but it’s an important difference.
The point is not to subtly shift their perspective in your reflection or summary, the point is to understand their perspective and make sure they know that you have heard it. Which leads to the next point:
Once you have reflected or summarized a point, ask them if you got it right. Your goal is to deeply understand what they are thinking or feeling. This means you are open to them correcting your understanding.
“Did I get that right?...”
Either they will say “Yes!” in a relieved tone because they know you heard them, or they will correct you. If they correct you, simply reflect the correction back to them, “Got it, what you were saying was…” It usually only takes one or two clarifications before you’ll get a “Yes!” (and it’s an awesome feeling when you see another person’s relief because you heard them and understood).
The last point is simply to explain to them why what they have told you makes sense. This last one is the hardest, because there can be times when some of what they say doesn’t make sense to you. But again the goal is to understand their perspective, not layer their story with a solution.
“It makes sense to me that you feel that way because…
....you told me you're friends are all in different classes than you and I can imagine how lonely that must feel. You have all new teachers this year and you don't like the way some of them teach. If I didn't have friends at work or didn't like the way my boss was doing something I'd probably hate going to work too. So it makes sense to me that you hate school right now."
3) That's it. No more. Show up and Listen.
To experience that someone:
1) Is there for you
2) Has really heard you
3) Understands where you are coming from
is incredibly powerful. It may seem like you aren't doing a lot in all of this but...
... being helpful does not mean you have to solve someone's problems. Being present and deeply listening are two of the most powerful things we can do to support someone we love when they are struggling.