It’s tough to see or hear of a friend in crisis. Empathic people often feel a kick to the gut when a person they care about experiences a heartache. Whether it’s the loss of a spouse, a medical issue with a child, or a painful divorce, a person may be haunted by the pain a loved one is experiencing. Yet, the risk of saying the wrong thing and compounding the hurt is sometimes paralyzing.
Being an Empathic Friend
One idea to keep in mind is that it is healthy for the distressed person to feel what he or she feels in the moment. Perhaps it is anger or despair. Telling the person not to feel sad or angry usually does them a disservice. Although it is not pleasant to see a friend in emotional pain, what he or she feels needs to be honored and respected. When a person in crisis feels understood, he or she feels less alone and more connected to the person who understands.
Everyone has felt hurt, sad, angry, etc. Empathizing with these emotional states may be the key. A person who experiences empathy from a friend who can “go there” for a few minutes in order to authentically understand while still maintaining a strong and supportive stance may be relieving and healing. One important consideration is that if the friend threatens harm to herself, it is critical to support her in quickly accessing professional help.
Honor your friend’s feelings.
While the friend is telling you about her circumstance, the first and most important step is to listen for feelings, not ways to solve her problem. For example, say a friend is distraught because her husband is threatening to leave her. Instead of saying, “Let him go. He’s not worth it.” Or, “You are better off without him,” which are phrases that do not honor what the friend feels, say things like, “You are so upset. It hurts. I get it. You are devastated.”
After fully honoring the feelings, it is important to ask the friend what would help. Maybe it’s a good cry and some ice cream. Perhaps it’s a glass of wine and a walk. It could be dressing up and going out on the town. Everyone has different ways of coping. Be respectful and ask the friend what she needs or wants, not what you prescribe.
Next, offer reassurance and a “big picture” perspective.
Following the empathy and support, it may be the right moment to offer an opinion. For example, “He doesn’t seem to share your values.” Or, “He doesn’t seem emotionally available.” As long as the friend’s feelings were honored, and he or she experienced support, it’s okay to then assist the person in gaining perspective. When a person is hurting it’s often tough to step back and see the big picture, so helping the friend with this is most beneficial after they have been soothed by empathy and grounded with support.
Finally, follow up.
The acute crisis may abate, but some pain will persist. Check-in with the friend frequently and send texts or messages that do not require a response but offer love and support. “Hi Shelly, you don’t need to respond. I just want you to know I’m thinking about you, and I think the world of you.” Often a crisis is taxing and talking may be exhausting, or the person isn’t in a space to talk, so sending supportive and empowering messages may help. It’s probable the person may absorb the caring message and be able to continue putting one foot in front of the other.
Take a second example. Say a close friend is being misrepresented by other friends. The friends are gossiping about her. She is left out of events she had been invited to in the past and rebuffed by the people in her social circle. The friend is reeling from the unfair attack and the knowledge that close friends are aligning against her.
During a conversation with her, listen for feelings. Honor her hurt and shock. “You are so hurt. You feel so betrayed. It’s awful.” After fully empathizing with the feelings, ask what would help. “What would help you feel better? Yoga? Comedy club? Tennis? Sushi?”
Next, help her see the big picture.
“People who only listen to one side of the story are not terribly sophisticated.” “It’s probably jealousy fueling this bullying.” If the person isn’t ready to talk about it, give him or her space, but routinely circle back and send encouraging and empowering messages in the following days and weeks. Let the person know that you are there to listen when he or she is ready.
The same equation is useful with a partner. Listen for feelings, empathize with his or her emotion, ask what would help, assist with a big-picture perspective, and follow up with encouraging and empowering messages in the following days and weeks.
Helping a friend or partner in crisis not only helps the person but creates closeness and trust in the relationship, making opening up in the future probable. In addition, the person empathizing feels positive because he or she was able to help. When a person is truly able to soothe and reassure a loved one, he or she feels vital and useful, strengthening the bond.