(3 minute read)
Most of us have found ourselves in situations where friends, colleagues or family members have shared their troubles with us. Bad things happen to people and we're told of serious illnesses, divorce, bereavement, relationship difficulties, a job loss, addictions and the like. These aren't run-of-the-mill conversations, and they don't happen that often. We want to be helpful, but because we don't have much experience, we may say things that are not helpful.
When people come to me for counselling, they’re usually in some pain. Sometimes they talk about how helpful friends have been, but other times they feel their friends just don’t understand. Here are eight common mistakes friends make in these kinds of serious conversations, mistakes that result in misunderstandings — and what we can say instead.
“I know exactly how you feel.” It is a natural reaction to want to say this, to tell the other person that they are not alone and that we understand what they are going through. Everybody has said this at one time or another. But feelings are very complex, and it's very unusual for anyone to be able to fully understand another person without a lot of time and effort. Hearing “I know exactly how you feel” may make the other person sense that we don’t fully understand, and that's unlikely to make them feel good. A better idea would be to simply ask "Tell me more about how you're feeling.” Keep asking questions until we really do understand, and then check in with our friend to see if our understanding is correct. “It sounds like you’re feeling X, is that right?” That way, even if we do misunderstand, we’ll catch it quickly.
“I’ve had the same thing happen to me.” Perhaps we have indeed had the same thing happen. But what looks the same on the surface almost certainly isn't experienced in the same way. We don’t have their history, their relationships and their sense of the world. Telling someone that we've had the same thing happen can make a person feel misunderstood and open up a gulf between us and them. It also shifts the focus of the conversation to us. That's fine in a regular conversation, but if the other person is hurting, and we want to be helpful, it's better to talk about them. One way to do this would be to say "Tell me more about what happened." By all means, let the other person know they’re not alone, that we’ve had something similar happen. But keep it brief, and keep the focus on our friend’s experience.
"I feel so sorry for you.” I once had a friend confess that she had narrowly avoided committing suicide several days before. I’d had no idea she was in so much pain, and my eyes welled with tears at the thought. “God dammit” she hissed, “Don’t you start crying now.” She didn’t want any pity — none of us want to be pitied. But there was another factor at play: My sorrow was a burden for her. She already had a bank account crammed full of regrets and guilt, and making me feel bad was yet another deposit into that account. People who are depressed in particular feel that they are a burden to others, and the knowledge that they have made another person feel terrible simply confirms their feeling that they are bad. One way to show your empathy without becoming a burden would be to say "I can see how terrible you feel."
“You shouldn’t feel that way.” Unfortunately, feelings are difficult to control, and the attempt to do so usually has negative side effects. (Actions are another matter: It’s OK to feel like killing the spouse that cheated on us, but it’s decidedly unwise to act on that feeling.) When we tell someone not to feel something, we're advising them to do something that's probably impossible. And we are adding another burden: Not only do they experience an unpleasant emotion, we may make them feel guilty for having that unpleasant emotion in the first place. We could say instead "I bet you don't like feeling that way”, or, “It must be tough feeling that way.”
“I’m sure you must feel…” We can never be sure how another person feels. When we say this, we are probably confident we know how they feel because something similar has happened to us, and we know exactly how we felt at the time. We want to show the other person that we ‘get them’, hoping that this will make them feel better. But human beings are complex, and everyone’s experience is unique, which means that the range of feelings we have in response to an experience is also unique. The chances that we fully understand the emotions another person is experiencing are vanishingly small. We may guess the general feeling, for example, that a spouse who has been cheated on is angry — as many are. But there can be many other emotions as well: Shame, guilt, relief, sadness, fear, loneliness, anxiety and more. Which of these, if any, are present, and to what degree? Telling someone we know how they feel will usually confirm to them that we don’t understand them. Far better to ask "How do you feel?” And keep asking them to tell us more about how they feel.
“Why don’t you just do X because that will fix things” We all feel the urge to help one another, and offering advice is the first thing we do to those we care about. We’ve all done it, and if we've lived long enough, we’ve noticed that much of the time people don’t take our advice. Or even worse, they do, and come back to tell us that things didn’t work out well. Now the problem is worse, and we're responsible. This is the interpersonal equivalent of the shop sign that says “You broke it - you bought it.”
Human beings are wired to want control over their own lives, as anyone who has watched a two year old knows. And we tend to have much more commitment to doing something when we made the decision, rather than were advised into it. Telling another person what to do rarely works in the long term.
That doesn’t mean that brainstorming is off limits. We all appreciate the advice of friends and loved ones who help us see alternatives. We just want to choose a solution for ourselves. So why not ask "What ideas have you had about how to fix things?" and then add our own ideas: “What would happen if you did such-and-such?” Note that we’re not telling them to do something — we’re asking them how they feel about a possible solution.
“This is making you sad, let’s talk about something else.” Actually, this probably isn't making the other person sad. It’s making us uncomfortable, and so we’d like to change the topic. And that’s fair enough — there’s nothing in the job description of Human Being that requires us to listen to other people’s troubles. But if we truly want to be helpful, and we can put aside our own discomfort, really listening to another person talk can be immensely helpful to them. One reason many people get uncomfortable is that they believe they need to offer solutions, that the resolution of the difficulties of another person depends upon them. In fact, the opposite is true. When a person is sharing their troubles with you, the main thing they want is an empathetic ear. If we're really worried about making them feel worse we can simply ask "Would you like to keep talking about this, or would you rather change the subject?"
“You really have to stop doing this.” These words are most often spoken to people who are involved in some kind of self destructive behavior. They drink too much; spend their money like water; cheat on their partner; procrastinate; overeat and under-exercise; refuse to see doctors, and so on. It’s a natural reaction to want to shake these people, to make them see what is so clear to others — that they are ruining their lives. But these people who are ruining their own lives….they’re not stupid. The facts are there for them to see: The empty bank accounts, drunken blackouts, tottering marriages, missed deadlines, health problems. They either refuse to see them because it’s too painful to look, or they’re simply unable to stop. Adding to the chorus of other people telling them to stop is likely going to generate defensiveness (“I don’t have a problem”), evasion (lies, or simply not sharing in the future) or non-compliance (a genuine agreement to change that fails to get implemented). It’s usually better to try to understand what’s driving the behavior than it is to try to stop it.
When we change the way we listen to our friends, we not only help them. We deepen our friendships, improving our connections to others — and that makes us feel better too.