Knowing what to say when a friend shares sad news with you is one of the most challenging things in a friendship. You may not know what to do no matter how close you are with this friend.
When someone you care about is hurting, it’s natural to want them to feel better. If you’ve never experienced what they’re going through, you may feel unsure about the best way to help them. Even when you do understand their situation, you may realize that the challenge your friend faces is really difficult to overcome.
If they’ve just lost a loved one, or someone close to them has fallen ill, it can be hard to find the words that offer them comfort. Difficulties at work or the end of a relationship can also leave you wondering how to cheer up your heartbroken friend. There isn’t one way to address a person in a state of grief or frustration, but you can develop some best practices for handling bad news.
Your Good Intentions Can Make Your Friend Feel Worse
When we’re oblivious about the best way to handle a situation, we respond to our sad friends in an inappropriate way. Maybe we say the wrong thing, or we’re unintentionally insensitive to their feelings. Either way, an inappropriate response can leave your friend feeling sadder than before you talked.
Most of us don’t go out of our way to hurt others. Even the best intentions can go awry. When we don’t know what to say, we’ll grasp at straws and try whatever comes to mind in order to soothe their discomfort. We’ve all done this, and most of us have had someone with good intentions make us feel worse. We want to help our friends feel better so we can’t help but do one or some of these things:
Changing the subject doesn’t help.
When conversation shifts toward challenges, you might think that changing the subject will help. In your mind, it’s a chance for your friend to move their attention away from their negative situation to something they enjoy. Changing the subject to something trivial and unrelated may feel good to you, but it won’t help them. They couldn’t care less about which movies are in theaters now, or how much you like the new restaurant in town.
This method is problematic because your friend needs and wants to be heard. They shared their troubles with you because giving voice to their pain can lessen it. If you change the subject, you deprive them of the chance to do this. They end up feeling invalidated and rejected.
Giving positive reassurance makes them more negative.
When your friend comes to you with troubles, it can be tempting to say things like, “Everything will be okay,” or “You’re good enough.” You might believe what you’re saying, and it’s coming from a good place, but sometimes that’s not what people need.
Your friend may just need to vent. They need to give their troubles some air time so that they can move on. Your attempts to be reassuring can come off as dismissive. Let them speak. Acknowledging that something is bad can actually motivate them to look for rational ways to cope.
Trying to “fix” the problem only worsens it.
When you care about someone, it’s difficult to watch them suffer. You might want to offer suggestions to help your friend get to the root of the problem.
“If I were you, I’d…” and, “It’s better to…” are only going to fix so much. Just like changing the subject and offering positive reassurance, this strategy robs your friend of the validation and understanding that they need. It seems like the more you care for them, the worse this habit becomes.
Offering unsolicited input about how you would do things won’t make them feel better, and being a fixer can be exhausting for you.1 When your friend asks for advice, they’re inviting you to offer input. Otherwise, avoid telling them what they should do.
Listen to Understand and Validate Your Friend’s Feelings
Above all, your friend wants to be heard. Give them the gift of listening patiently and authentically. Withhold your judgements, forget about planning what you want to say next, and hold space for them. But don’t just silently listening. What you should do is to practice active listening which involves the following steps:
1. Give them nonverbal reassurance.
Sitting silently won’t make your friend feel heard or validated. Stay engaged in what they’re saying, and offer body language that indicates that you hear them. Nodding your head and making eye contact will help them feel safe and will encourage them to let it out.
2. Speak without fixing.
You don’t have to nod mutely, but be sure that your contributions to the conversation keep the focus on them. When you say things like, “I hear you,” or “I know I can’t feel exactly how you feel, but I understand it’s hard for you,” you offer them the validation that they crave.
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If you want to find out more about validating another person’s feelings, read my other article Why Your Lover Doesn’t Want Your Advice, but Your Validation
3. Paraphrase the problem in your own words.
If you simply repeat what they just told you without synthesizing the information, you’re parroting the problem back to them. Demonstrate that you have been thinking about what they’ve been saying by putting the situation into your own words. For example, “It doesn’t seem reasonable that you have to take on extra duties when you already have so much to do,” sounds a lot more reassuring than, “You work too much.”
To learn more about active listening, tale a look at The Skill That Most People Don’t Have: Active Listening
All They Need Is a Listening Ear, Nothing Else
Knowing what to say and how to say it can be challenging. But if your friend is coming to you with their problems, it means that they trust you. Consider their confidence in you a gift, and do your best to hold space for them as they work through whatever is happening in their lives.
Above all, be an active listener and work to validate their feelings. Resist the urge to fix things, change the subject, or smother them with platitudes. A kind listening ear may be all that your friend needs to get through a difficult time. Truly hear them, and you’ll be amazed at the results. When life throws you a curve-ball, they’ll do the same for you.