How to Help a Friend
Talk about what is going on
Talking provides an opportunity to reflect, unburden, share ideas and connect. Read on for some tips to make sure you have a good conversation or check in with yourself before you jump in.
1. Plan it
A conversation about personal issues can feel awkward - even between close friends.
Before reaching out to someone, consider:
What exactly have you noticed that is concerning you?
Might the nature of your relationship with the person affect how willing they are to disclose what is going on?
Is there anything you can do to pre-empt resistance to opening up?
Where is the best place to talk?
When is the best time to talk?
What might be the best way to frame your concerns?
How much help are you prepared to give?
What do they need from you? Do they just need to vent or need help taking the next steps? You don't have to guess. Asking them is a helpful way to make sure you are both on the same page.
2. Start it
The hardest part of the conversation might be working out how to start it. If your friend has previously mentioned something they are struggling with, try checking in with them about it.
If your friend has not disclosed any issues, express your concern and state what you have noticed. This can be said in a general sense:
"You don’t seem yourself lately, is anything troubling you?"
Or you can try noting a specific observation:
"I noticed you seem a bit more quiet/not smiling as much/not going out as much as you usually do. Is everything okay?"
3. Listen, empathise and acknowledge
Give your friend your full attention. That means not looking at your phone or watch, and avoiding distractions from others around you.
Try mirroring their body language and use non-verbal indications like nodding to show that you are listening.
Judge the extent of eye contact – try to show that you are engaged, but allow discretion. Some people are uncomfortable with eye contact when talking about sensitive topics. It might be easier to be focused on an activity like gardening or cooking whilst you are talking to help make them more comfortable.
Try not to jump in with advice or sharing your experiences as soon as there is a gap in the conversation. It can shift the focus away from your friend's experience and make them feel unheard or give the impression that what they are saying is not important.
Rephrase, clarify and ask questions that encourage reflection and discussion, like:
Has this happened before?
What worked for you in the past?
What things have you tried? What helped? What didn’t?
What’s causing you the most worry at the moment?
Know the difference between sympathy and empathy – and aim for the latter. A sympathetic response by itself can still make a person feel quite alone.
Sympathy means expressing pity or compassion. It’s simply saying that you feel bad for them. It focuses on how you feel about what’s happening to them.
"I am so sorry for you".
"My heart goes out to you."
An empathetic response shows that you understand what the situation might feel like for them. It requires you to put yourself in their shoes.
“This situation sounds distressing for you. I’d imagine you might feel scared and angry.”
Thank your friend for trusting you, and acknowledge that what they disclosed must have been difficult to talk about.
It’s OK to not know how to help. Part of being there for someone is just listening and not having all the answers. It is reassuring for them to know that someone else is there and you are willing to help to figure things out rather than lecture them about what they should have done.
“I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you.”
“This is hard. There are probably no words that will make it better, but I wish there were.”
“I’m here to support you. Shall we try to learn together about what might work?”
4. Be prepared
What if they don't want to talk...
Move on to another topic, but say that you are there to listen if they ever want to chat.
If your concerns continue or worsen, then try talking to them again, or talk to others who may be aware of the issue and be able to support them.
What if they get offended...
Stress that you are checking in on them because you are concerned, change the subject and continue to be a mate. Don’t take it personally.
What if you think they may be considering suicide...
Try to stay calm. Having feelings of suicide is different to having a plan to do so. If you are not sure of where your friend is at, explicitly ask if they have been thinking about suicide.
Call Lifeline for 24/7 support and advice either with or without the person. If life is in immediate danger call 000.
If they talk about topics that are confronting for you...
Be honest, say that the topic is difficult for you to discuss, but thank your friend for their trust and acknowledge that the issue must be even more difficult to experience.
After the conversation, take time out for yourself to reflect, learn more about the issue or reach out to your own support network to ‘debrief’ – but make sure you maintain your friend’s confidentiality.
5. Make a time to follow up
After a heavy conversation, making plans to meet up again can show things aren’t weird between you two now, even if you have talked about a difficult topic; you are still their friend and there for them in the long term.
Set firm plans for your next meeting. Try to commit to a date and time.
Before you meet again consider doing the following:
Research: any topics or subjects you are unfamiliar with that your friend mentioned in your last talk.
Accountability: Keep your friend accountable to things they said they’d do from when you spoke last. Try not to make them feel bad if they haven’t made any progress. Instead, gently nudge them into doing helpful things for themselves. They may need you to do things with them initially to build their confidence.
Plan the conversation if it didn't go so well first time round or it took you off guard.
If your friend is noncommittal about meeting again and they have had thoughts about suicide, trust your gut and talk to them about their safety or call 000 if you are worried.