Nothing appears to be going right. The worst part? No one gets it, even though they might claim to.
Even though you know this is all temporary–it always is–you feel the need to ask other people what you should do. If they say what you want to hear, you’re relieved. But it doesn’t usually work that way. In fact, oftentimes you’re more frustrated than you were before once they put their two cents in.
We’ve all been there before.
Think back real hard—what in particular helped or irked you about advice people gave you? Did they say you should have done something differently (which wasn’t very useful after the fact)?
Did they tell you to stop feeling sorry for yourself because other people have bigger problems? Did they offer some platitudes or cliche advice that sounded impossible to follow?
When friends have problems that seem incurable and never-ending, you can sense that hopelessness. And you want to fix it, which always seems so simple when you’re sitting on the outside.Oftentimes, you’re not sure what to say because you don’t feel qualified to give advice but you feel compelled to say something. But it always looks different when you’re inside the mess than it is when you’re standing on the sidelines.
And even if other people have much larger problems, we still dwell on our own because what matters, in that moment, is how we feel.
Sometimes, you just have to accept the fact that you can’t, at least not instantly, help someone when they’re in a fragile state. That’s OK. Most of the time when someone comes to you, they’re not expecting you to have all the answers or even talk.
They just want someone to lend an ear and be by their side through a difficult time.
Realizing this is key to delivering good advice. It isn’t always composed of words and answers. Here’s how you can be helpful to a person in their darkest of times:
1. Advise with permission.
When you care about someone, and think you know how to improve their situation, it’s tempting to play amateur psychiatrist–especially if you’ve been there before. If you’ve ever been on the couch-end of this scenario, you know it can be frustrating.
If you feel the need to offer unsolicited advice, ask them, “Do you want some ideas to improve the situation?” This way they have the option to say no; and they’ll likely give you more attention when they’ve agreed to take your help.
2. Give them a rant window.
Oftentimes when people ask for advice, what they really want is to rehash something they can’t get off their mind–something they’ve probably talked about repeatedly to lots of different people (maybe even anyone who’d listen).
The best way to be a friend is to enable both what they want to do and what they need to do. Want: tell the story repeatedly, as if they can change how they feel if they just talk about it enough. Need: work through it and let it go. Tell them you’re there to listen to everything they need to say. Once they’ve gotten all out, you’d love to help them move on.
3. Be honest.
If you don’t know how someone feels, you can’t truthfully say, “I know how you feel.” That’s OK. You can likely still empathize on some level. Let them know, gently, that you haven’t been there before, but you’ll try to put yourself in their shoes to help as best you can.
Also, don’t be afraid to let them know you don’t have anything to say. You can still be an ear, take some time to think about it, and then share your thoughts later.
4. Avoid judging.
When someone comes to you for help, odds are they already feel pretty vulnerable. They’re trusting you to hear them out without being judgmental or condescending.
Rather than beginning your advice with, “You should have,” or “Why didn’t you…?” realize what’s done is done, and focus on what they can do or change right now. Try something like, “It might help to consider….” Then, offer your support along the path.
5. Make it a collaboration.
It can feel gratifying to figure out what seems like the answer, and then deliver it in a sermon. It’s like being a good advice detective when you figure out exactly what someone should or can do–and you feel even better when you can put it all into words eloquently.
But this can also come off as superiority, which probably isn’t your intention. Try, “I don’t have all the answers, but I’d love to help you figure out what’s right for you.” Whenever you’ve talked for a few minutes, bring it back to them. “What are your thoughts about that?”
6. Offer long-term support.
Your sister doesn’t want just a list of ways to break up with her boyfriend; she wants help finding the courage to do it and get through it. Your friend doesn’t just want tips to switch careers; she wants support in making a scary but positive change.
It doesn’t matter so much that you have all the answers. More often that not, people know what’s right for them; they just want to feel validated and supported.
7. Don’t make promises.
Even if you’ve been there before, you can’t guarantee any specific outcome. Your friend could approach her boss exactly like you did for a raise, and end up being demoted–at which point she might blame you.
Keep expectations realistic by focusing on possibilities within the realm of uncertainty. If you tell your sister to take a risk, make sure she knows it is a risk. Help her weigh the possible outcomes, both positive and negative so she can decide if it’s worth the potential reward.
8. Recommend a read.
When you make the proactive decision to find answers for yourself, you feel both empowered and confident in your ability to make the right decision. You can help your friend feel that way by pointing him in the direction of a few books that will help him help himself.
He’ll feel much better himself after gaining a new insight through reading than he will after sitting through a lecture. Start by saying, “I came across something that might help put things in perspective…”
9. Say it from the heart.
Another option is to be there with kindness instead of words. This is a good approach if you’ve already offered advice on the problem, and realize not much you say will help.
Leave a hand-written “thinking of you” card in that person’s mailbox or mail them a package with some sweet treats and light reads. Sometimes people just need to remember their problem isn’t the end of the world, and there are lots of other good things in their life.
10. Make plans.
You’re not the go-to guru for all answers–and you don’t have to be–but you have the power to make other things happen.
Plan a fun weekend getaway or day trip (for the budget-conscious) with your friend. Set the date in stone and make an unforgettable memory. People often find answers for themselves when they get away, let themselves relax, and clear their head for a while.
You don’t always have to have the right words. Actions speak louder, anyway. But if you do have something to say, know how you say it can make a world of difference.