by Phyllis L. Neumann, MS, MFT

Have you ever had a friend come to you in distress and you don't what to say to her? Few people know how to hear someone's pain without feeling somewhat anxious or uncomfortable themselves. Instead, they tend to rely on pat, mechanical responses or clichés that make them feel more comfortable. Unfortunately, those same responses also have the effect of cutting off your friend's feelings.

Do these "quick fix" phrases seem familiar to you? Perhaps you've even used them yourself.

    • "Things have a way of working out." (patronizing)
    • "You're blowing this all out of proportion." (invalidating)
    • "Let me get you a stiff drink. That'll fix you right up!" (distracting)
    • "Your problems are nothing compared to Vanessa's." (condescending)
    • "You're just having a PMS day." (making excuses)

All these responses have one thing in common - they cut off communication and put your friend on the defensive. The original cause of the distress winds up getting lost as you discuss semantics or solutions. Eventually, your friend may just shut down altogether in embarrassment, frustration or even shame.

Why is it so hard to hear a friend's personal pain, especially someone you really care about? Perhaps you can identify with her problem, which triggers your own painful feelings. Or you may feel pressured to come up with a solution to the problem.

Few people have been taught how to care for the emotional needs of others. They may be skillful at caring for people who are physically ill, but when it comes to emotional pain they seem to be at a loss. Unfortunately, there are few role models in our society to show you how it's done, so you're left to your own devices, and may feel quite helpless or confused as to how to best handle the situation.

What should you do if your friend turns to you for help? Actually, you don't have to do anything - just be a good listener. Your friend needs to know that you're willing to support her. A simple "You really seem upset" or "Tell me more about it," lets her know that you're concerned and that you really care about her.

Your friend also needs to know that her feelings are real and justified. "That sounds awful" or "I would feel the same way myself" conveys that message. It lets her know that you're really trying to understand her problem and that she's not all alone with it.

Your friend may need to express her feelings by crying or becoming angry. Soothing statements such as, "Go ahead and let it out. You'll feel a lot better if you do," let her know that it's OK to release her feelings in front of you without feeling guilt or humiliation.

Your friend needs to know that you won't judge or reject her for what's she's told you. Comforting words like, "It must have been really hard for you" show support without judgment.

Your friend needs to make her own decisions about her situation. It's best if you don't offer her advice. Giving advice has its own set of problems because your friend no longer has to decide for herself. She can instead rely on you to tell her what's best for her. That puts you in more of a parent role than a friend role. Instead, give her back the power by asking, "What do you think you need to do?" or "Is there some way I can help?" Then she can figure out for herself what she needs to do.

Once your friend has been able to release her feelings she may begin to feel lighter, even more optimistic about the situation. Although the situation itself has not actually changed, her attitude toward the situation might change. Facts may seem clearer, and she may not feel as hopeless or despondent.

Being a good friend is sometimes hard to do, especially at distressing times; however, being supportive when your friend needs you is one of the most loving gifts you can give.

Published in the Half Moon Bay Review on October 10, 2007