An important of coping is being able to assist others in need. How do you handle things when someone reaches out to you for advice, or just wants to get a sympathetic ear? Being a listener can be challenging because you are likely to be concerned about saying the wrong thing and making things worse. With that thought in mind, let’s look at some general points when talking with others who are distressed:
“Listen” to what others tell you; don’t just “hear” them. Be uncritical to show them you understand what they are going through.
Remember, it’s not about you, but about them. “Here’s what I would do if I were you,” is not a helpful comment. You are not about “being them,” so don’t go there.
Demonstrate in your actions how important they are to you and what they mean to you. Offer to give them a ride, pick up their kids, stop by for a visit with some “food or goodies,” etc.
Do not label them (“Jane is bipolar, so I should offer to babysit her kids.”) The labels will stereotype them in your mind and bias your interactions with them.
Use caution when discussing medications. You may recognize that medications given for anxiety, depression, and other psychological issues only help to reduce symptoms, but you should not force that view on others. If they are dissatisfied with their meds, encourage them to talk to their provider. Focus your talks with others on their life conflicts, not on their medications.
If you are interacting with someone who has been in professional counseling for over six months, but who feels improvement has been minimal, raise the possibility of seeking another counselor.
Help others keep their expectations realistic.
Here are a couple of conversations that illustrate some basic principles to follow when talking with others. The idea here is not to memorize these examples and follow them to the letter; doing so would sound rather stiff and robotic. The point is to see the general strategies that psychologists have found to be effective when talking with others.
Comment: “There’s nothing for me to live for any longer. I don’t care whether I live or die.”
Response: “All of us need to change our purposes and goals as life goes by. You had meaning in life before; I bet you can do it again and find some purpose in what you do. What do you think is holding you back?”
Notice how the response does not criticize the commenter, but suggests a proactive strategy, and asks a question designed to distract the pessimist from self-destructive thoughts.
Comment: “I’ve tried therapy, I’ve tried medication. None of it works. I might as well give up. My life isn’t ever going to be worth anything again.”
Response: “Maybe you haven’t had a counselor or medication that is effective for you. You haven’t tried them all, right? Is there any harm in looking for a new counselor? Also, one thing for sure, people in counseling need to work at it to see positive change. Are you motivated to help yourself? Have you really given things a chance to work?”
The response points out that the commenter has not exhausted his/her search. Also note how both replies serve to re-direct the complainer from self-blame and self-pity, and re-examine his/her efforts in a more realistic way.
One important thing to note about both these examples is how they rely on posing questions. If you’re like most people, when you are talking to someone who is troubled, you will be tempted to express your opinions, forgetting that it’s not about you, it’s about the other person. Conversations with troubled folks will be much effective if you take yourself out of the equation and pose questions that encourage them to consider proactive options.