How to be of Actual Help
If there were one thing I could tell people who aren’t mental health professionals, and who are listening to a friend or family member who is upset and experiencing difficulties, it would be this: cut down your advice giving by 90%.
When we listen to someone in distress, it’s natural to want to offer advice. We hope that our advice will help the other person find his or her way. Even more so, we may offer advice because it is hard to listen to someone in pain, and we want to make ourselves feel better. But instead, it often makes the other feel even more alienated and alone. It can create a feeling of just not being understood.
There is a role for advice of course. But think of it as the spice in the stew. It’s far from the main ingredient—it’s just a little dash of this or that, not the meat and potatoes.
What is helpful? Presence. Deep, active listening. Deep listening doesn’t always mean you just remain silent. You can reflect back what the person is saying. “That sounds so painful,” or “you’re feeling so alone,” or “that made you so angry!”. This shows the person that you are really trying to understand, trying to see that person’s pain from his or her own point of view. And then, once they feel understood, maybe when they seem a little calmer, yes, you might be able to offer a gentle hint about something they could try. “You may have already considered this already, but could you…”
But even without mastering the intricacies of skillful listening, just cutting back on advice giving will already make you more helpful.