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How To Talk To Someone Going Through A Hard Time

An excerpt from The Art of Showing Up: How to be There for Yourself and Your People by Rachel Wilkerson Miller.

Posted on May 27, 2020, at 3:06 p.m. ET

BuzzFeed News; The Experiment; Elena Mudd

Life during the COVID-19 pandemic isn't easy for anyone, and there's a good chance you have at least one friend or loved one who is struggling with something serious right now — whether that's unemployment, loneliness, relationship problems, or illness or death of a loved one. If someone you care about is going through a rough patch, here are some things you can do to show up for them.

1. Keep your focus on them.

When listening to a friend in need, it’s crucial to actually listen. That means listening to hear, not listening to respond. It’s not that sharing your thoughts isn’t helpful; it’s just that it’s so easy to dominate the conversation without even realizing it.

In We Need To Talk, Celeste Headlee cites sociologist Charles Derber’s description of two types of responses that exist in conversations: the shift response and the support response. The shift response draws attention to you; the support response keeps attention on the other person. Here’s what the two responses might look like in practice.

The shift response

Friend: I’m so exhausted all the time.
You: Ugh, me too. I haven’t been sleeping well at all lately.

The support response

Friend: I’m so exhausted all the time.
You: Oh? Are you not sleeping well lately, or do you think there’s some other cause?

Offering more support responses and fewer shift responses is a good conversational habit in general, but it’s especially wise to be conscious of this when your friend is going through a tough time.

2. Resist the urge to say, “I understand,” or to share your version of a similar-seeming experience.

If you are confident you’ve had a similar experience that they might want to hear about, maybe say something like this: “I lost my mom to cancer when I was fifteen, and while I know I’ll never understand how you feel right now, I am here if you ever want to talk about losing a parent.” The key is to let them decide if the experiences are similar enough to bond over, and to frame it as “this is something we can talk about later” instead of derailing the current conversation to talk about your experience.

3. When in doubt, ask.

It’s truly OK not to know what to say or do in response to a friend’s terrible situation. They might not even know what they want you to say or do. So if you’re not sure, ask. Here are some questions that you might want to ask in these moments.

“How can I best support you right now?”

This is my all-time favorite question when a friend is dealing with something difficult (or is simply stressed out). I like it because it communicates “I am here for you” while also saying “and I care about you enough to get this right.” It acknowledges that everyone is different and invites the individual to tell you what they need from you personally. It also shows humility; when you ask this question, you communicate “I don’t necessarily know best, and I’m open to feedback.” Finally, it gives them an opening to subtly steer you away from any of your default responses that aren’t going to be helpful to them at the moment (e.g., they can say “I need you to be my rock” if they know you tend to get really emotional).

“What are you in the mood for right now?”

This question gives your friend permission to set the tone of the conversation or hangout, and gives them the gift of control. They may not realize that they get to have a say in how they cope, so let them know that you’re here for them whether they’re in the mood to talk, laugh, cry, yell, vent, scream, do research, be cheered up, be sad, continue on with your original plans, get a manicure, pretend this isn’t happening, or whatever.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

This is my go-to response immediately after a person has told me something shitty that just happened to them. What I’m really saying is, “This sounds bad. I’m here for you, but I’m going to make sure a conversation with me is what you want/need right now before I launch into it.” Occasionally when I do this, the person will realize they actually don’t want to talk about it, or will say they want to talk about it at some point later, but for now, they’d prefer to stay focused on the task at hand. Which: great! I’d rather give them a moment to think about what they really want to do instead of replying in a way that gets them all fired up and emotional before they even realize what is happening.

“Oh! How are you feeling about it?”

I say this when I need a liiiitle more information. A lot of people (myself included!) have a habit of telling others what happened but forget to say how they feel about what happened. I don’t want to be the friend who says “Oh no!” in response to a wanted pregnancy, or who mistakes a demotion at work for exciting job news. I’d prefer not to take the risk when it’s so easy to do a quick check-in before I start emoting.

“Do you want my thoughts/advice on this, or do you just want to vent? I’m totally here for you either way.”

This is a good option if your friend isn’t telling you what they need from you in this moment, or if you tend to be a fixer and advice giver. “How are you doing/feeling today?” This question acknowledges that bad times aren’t static; a lot can change on a daily, weekly, or even hourly basis. It also lets people decide to tell you about their morning instead of, you know, the past three months of hell they’ve been going through.

“Are you OK to keep talking about this, or would you like a break?”

I keep this one in mind when my friend and I are having a particularly heavy conversation and the friend is visibly distraught or drained. Note: This is not something you should say to hint that you’d like to wrap up the conversation; if you’re getting tired or burned out, it’s best to skip this question entirely. Only ask this if it’s coming from a place of genuine care.

“Would you prefer to be alone right now or would you like some company?”

When you’re with someone who has just received very bad news, who is super emotional, or who is about to have a tough conversation with a third party (like, say, a doctor, lawyer, or detective), it’s reasonable to default to doing what you would want a friend to do in that moment. So if you’d hate to be left alone while weeping, you’ll probably assume your friend wants you to stay while they cry. And if you can’t imagine letting a friend listen in while you receive test results from your doctor, you may bounce the moment their provider appears. This is the right instinct, but if you guess wrong, the other person might feel worse. So just ask what they’d prefer, and then do exactly what they say they want.

4. Go easy on the fact-finding questions.

In There Is No Good Card for This, Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell point out that asking too many clarifying questions can actually get in the way of sharing. “Fact-finding questions can divert the conversation away from what a person really wants to talk about to what the asking person wants to know,” they say, “and fact-finding conversations create a detached, clinical portrayal of the problem rather than an emotional one. Getting the facts can be important to your helping in the long term, but you don’t usually need a lot of specific facts to comfort someone.” That last part is key — remember that this conversation is about how they are feeling, not the minor details of what happened.

5. Know that there’s no shame in a genuine “I’m so sorry.”

If you want “I’m so sorry” to have meaning, just make sure you say it with meaning. There’s a huge difference between offering a robotic “I’m sorry for your loss” before you’ve even had time to process the news, and a sincere, genuine, “Oh, friend, I’m so sorry.” ●

Excerpted from The Art of Showing Up: How to be There for Yourself and Your People by Rachel Wilkerson Miller. Available wherever books are sold.


Rachel Wilkerson Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to be There for Yourself and Your People and the deputy editor of VICE Life. Previously, she was a senior lifestyle editor at BuzzFeed for four years. Along with VICE and BuzzFeed, her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Huffington Post, the Hairpin, and SELF, and she’s been a guest on NPR, the Today show, and Good Morning America. She lives in Brooklyn.

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