You’re just settling in for the night when your phone rings. It’s your best friend and she’s frantic, talking a mile a minute between tearful gasps. Not exactly sure what happened, you are able to make out the phrases “me and Mike,” and “I can’t believe he did this to me.” “Can you meet me at the coffee shop around the corner? I need help … I don’t know what to do!” she adds, sobbing into the phone.
Dropping the prospect of a quiet night at home, you grab your car keys and head out to comfort and console your distraught BFF on the other side of town. Meanwhile, your thoughts are mulling over possibilities of what could have happened with her and her boyfriend, the guy she’s been happily living with for the last couple of years.
You’ve been on the receiving end of a similar call at some time in your adult life, right? Your friend needs a friend right now and you hope you’re up for the challenge. You want to say the right thing, give comfort to ease the emotional pain, and maybe pass on useful advice.
Laying the Foundation
Before you even open your mouth to say something, all sorts of variables come into play when you’re advising a friend. You have to ask yourself, what are they really asking me for? Maybe they don’t come out and ask for help but you sense they want it or need it. Should you cross that boundary and offer it? Will it be accepted? What if it’s not? What if the advice you give is not received well. What if you say something that makes things worse?
Whether solicited or unsolicited, laying the foundation for good advice requires that you show them you’re willing to listen, that you want to listen. Set the groundwork by trying to make them feel comfortable about sharing their thoughts and feelings. Speak softly and make eye contact. Sit close by, in a relaxed posture. Eventually, they may mimic your demeanor as you put them at ease.
If they hesitate, reassure them that your conversation will be confidential. You don’t want to pry and you don’t gossip. The only exception to the privacy vow is if you think your friend is in danger of physical or mental abuse (we’ll get to that later).
The prerequisites are patience, understanding, honesty, and being non-judgmental. Be a good listener. Let them talk. Let them ramble, rant, reflect … whatever they want. Sometimes they just need a sounding board, not actual advice.
What’s Good Advice?
What’s healthy, constructive advice? Good advice is subjective. It’s an expression of you, based on your life’s experiences. But it’s also being able to pass on common-sense solutions based on the situation your friend is facing, taking into account all that you know about your friend and their relationship.
· Sometimes all they need is for you to validate their feelings or a course of action that want to take or did take.
· Sometimes they need to work out their problem verbally to someone they can trust.
· Sometimes they need someone to confirm they’re taking the right course of action.
· Sometimes they want to know what you would do in their situation. “What would you do if your boyfriend suddenly stopped calling and you don’t know what it means and what to do?”
Let them do the talking first. Be encouraging. Coax them to talk more, “get it all off their chest” by asking them to tell you more. You might say, “What did you think when he said that?” “What happened next?”
Show them you’re actively listening. Repeat back to them what they said. Not only does this show them you’re listening, the bounce-back can also give them a new understanding of their situation.
Assure them that their relationship problem isn’t unique. You don’t want to play down the importance; Just show them other people have similar struggles in their relationships and how they resolved them. The idea is to give them comfort in knowing that other people are going through what they are going through and can overcome it, that it isn’t insurmountable.
Don’t play therapist. Don’t try to analyze or diagnose them or their mate. Be alert to not only what they say, but how they say it, their body language, tone, how fast or slow they’re talking. These are cues to what you might say to them and how you might say it.
Hug them, squeeze their hand … Warm, physical contact can feel so good when someone is upset. It has a way of melting away some of the edge off the emotional pain.
Offer to role-play with them. If your friend doesn’t know how to approach their mate about a concern, let them practice with you taking the role of their mate.
Ask them to tell you some of the endearing things their mate has done and the positive experiences they have with one another.
Help them find ways to have constructive conversations with their mate about their problem.
Encourage your friend to seek cooperation when talking to their mate, not have a one-sided discussion or one-sided decision-making.
Encourage them to start out expressing love and kindness with their mate, tell their mate that they love them and value them and the relationship … and that’s why they want to clear the air, express a concern, iron things out, find common ground, find solutions.
If your friend confides in you that they are being abused, urge them to report the abuse and seek professional help in dealing with domestic abuse. Be sure they understand you’ll still be there for them, regardless of what happens and any outside help they seek, as a friend, listener, and adviser.
What’s Bad Advice?
Don’t make light of what they tell you. Don’t minimize the problem. For example, don’t say “That’s no big deal.” If it weren’t a big deal you wouldn’t be having this heart-to-heart with them.
Don’t tell them the problem will resolve itself or that what their partner did is “just a one-time occurrence” or surely won’t happen again, “just a passing phase.” … especially if you see a pattern of unfaithfulness on the part of their mate.
Don’t be preachy, a know-it-all, insensitive. Avoid using expressions like “You should have …,” “I would have …,” or “Why didn’t you …”
Don’t be overly indignant about what your friend’s mate has done. This can provoke your friend into a confrontation with their mate with a “bone to pick.” Being argumentative can be a recipe for escalating an argument, making your friend more upset. This can result in an unproductive discussion between the couple that doesn’t resolve the problem but exacerbates it.
This goes double if you suspect your friend is in an abusive relationship. If you learn that your friend has been abused, is in danger of physical harm, you may want to help them find ways to create physical distance, find a safe place. Don’t encourage them to forgive and forget and go back to more abuse.
Follow-up and Ongoing Support
Keep tabs. Check-in with them from time to time. Ask for updates. Ask them what, if anything has changed regarding the situation. Ask if the problem is getting resolved. Ask them how they feel. Share helpful articles you might have come across online or in a book. Be there for them.