• When a friend or loved one comes to us with a difficult problem, it can be hard to know what to say

  • Often advice or solutions aren't needed as much as just someone to listen

  • Talking to friends is not the same as talking to a professional therapist. If the time is right for outside help, find a therapist here.

If you’re open, friendly, and show an interest in other people, they’ll most likely want to talk with you; exchange ideas, thoughts and opinions, anecdotes and stories with you.

How, though, do you respond when someone is sad and upset, distressed, or depressed and struggling to cope? What to say when a family member, a friend, colleague, or your partner tells you that they’re desperately unhappy and want to quit their job or their place at university? Or that they’re very worried about their financial situation? How to respond to a colleague who tells you that his wife has left him? Or that their partner has been in a car accident or a close family member has been diagnosed with a serious illness?

There’s not a lot you can say. At first, what’s most important is that you listen; simply listen to what they’re saying and feeling. Don’t interrupt, don’t try to fix it, pacify them, offer solutions, or stop their experience or expression of what they’re thinking or feeling. You don’t need to say anything, just being willing to listen can help a person feel less alone and isolated.

Be patient. You might want to ask questions and get more details about what’s happened, and how they feel about it. But first, let the other person express themselves. Whatever they say, however long it takes them to tell you or however brief, when you think they’ve finished, count to three before you respond. This gives the other person an opportunity to continue, but it’s not so long a pause that it appears you’re not going to respond.

By giving them a chance to say what’s happened and what they’re feeling, by trying to understand what the other person is saying and feeling, you’re being empathetic.

If the other person has simply made a brief announcement you might need to know more. For example, someone might tell you that they’re desperately unhappy in their job or on their university course. Simply ask them, ‘Can you tell me more about that?’ Other times, someone may have poured their heart out and given you a detailed description of their situation. In that case, you might start by clarifying and confirming what you’ve understood. Just say, ‘So, can I just be clear, you’re saying that… have I got that right?’

What to Say? Dos and don’ts

Do ask about how someone feels about what’s happened; ‘How’d you feel about that?’ Even if you think you know, let them tell you.

Don’t say ‘I know how you feel.’ You don’t need to have experienced the same situation as they have, you don’t have to agree that you’d feel the same way in the same situation, you just need to have empathy; to recognise the other person’s feelings and emotions and realise that, to a greater or lesser extent, they’re having a hard time.

Do say something like ‘I’m sorry that happened. It must be hard/confusing/annoying/disappointing/upsetting for you.’ In this way, you’re validating that whatever it is, you understand that for them, it is hard, difficult, upsetting, or confusing or whatever it is they could be feeling.

The other person might agree or they might disagree and explain further. For example, saying to someone whose elderly parent has recently died, ‘You must be so upset’ might be met with. ‘No, actually, I’m very relieved. Mum had been ill for so long, it’s a relief that it’s now all over.’

Do ask open questions to encourage the other person to talk; to express their thoughts and feelings. Open questions that begin with What, Why, How, Tell me, Explain. For example; ‘How did it happen?’ or ‘Why do you think he said that?’ Don’t interrogate them though.

Questions that make a difference

Don’t think you can make someone to talk to you. It can take time for someone to feel able to talk openly, and putting pressure on them to talk might dissuade them from saying anything at all.

Do try and stay calm. Even though someone else’s distress might be upsetting, try to stay calm. This will help the other person feel calmer too, and let them feel that they can talk freely, without upsetting you.

Don’t give your thoughtful analysis of what went wrong and why. When your friend is turned down for a job or place on the course, or your sister’s husband leaves her, someone tells you they’ve had a terrible day at work, or had a row with their partner, parent, or teenager your perspective might be useful but don’t assume that you know how they feel or what will help.

Sometimes solutions are unnecessary, so don’t feel you have to provide one. You may feel powerless about not being able to offer some practical help so don’t suggest a juice fast, or that they need to meditate, or that you’ll lend them that brilliant self-help book about being happier every day. Not now. Just listen. They may well appreciate you just listening more than your advice.

Do be willing to sit in silence. Often, comfort comes from simply being in your company.

Don’t say, if someone is going through a relationship break-up ‘I never did like them’ or ‘You’re better off without them’. They’re probably already going over decisions they could have made differently, or signs they should have been looking out for. They don’t need your disapproval, even if in your head it sounds like support.

Don’t slip into clichés. It’s easy to give unhelpful platitudes that offer no comfort but just irritate the other person. Don’t say things like:

  • Everything happens for a reason
  • God never gives you more than you can handle
  • It was meant to be
  • It was not meant to be
  • He’s just gone to the next journey of his new life now
  • It could be worse
  • What’s done is done
  • Time is a great healer
  • You need to put this behind you
  • You’ll get over it
  • Think positive
  • There’s always someone worse off than you are

Do say. ‘I’m sorry you’re going through this’ or ‘I’m so sorry this has happened’.

Do suggest a walk or a drive. Sometimes it’s easier to talk things through when you’re both moving. The simple action of moving forward helps a person’s mind to move forward, too. If someone is struggling to find a solution to a problem – feeling stuck in their job or a relationship – a walk in the park or countryside or a drive really can help open perspective and move things forward.

This is an edited extract from Communication: How to Connect with Anyone, by Gill Hasson (published by Capstone, 2019).

Communication Gill Hasson

Further reading

How to keep healthy boundaries with a friend in need

How good relationships boost our health

5 ways to resolve conflicts in relationships

How to talk to someone after a miscarriage

Men need to talk about suicidal thoughts