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How to support a struggling friend | Psyche

Au Café (c1875-77) by Edgar Degas. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

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Guide

How to support a struggling friend

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say or do. Use these five strategies for providing effective emotional support

by Elise Kalokerinos + BIO

Au Café (c1875-77) by Edgar Degas. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Need to know

Your friend is devastated. She’s just lost her job and looks like she’s about to burst into tears in the middle of the busy coffee shop. You don’t know what to do. You want to help her, but what do you say in this horrible situation? How do you make her feel better right now, and how can you help her get through the tough time to come?

We’ve all been in situations like this, both big and small and everything in between: from a friend burning the food at their dinner party, to struggling with the loss of a loved one; from missing the bus to work, to enduring a marriage breakdown. Common wisdom suggests that a problem shared is a problem halved. We really want to help, yet we don’t quite have the words or the tactics. You might have felt yourself freeze in these moments, paralysed by the thought that anything you say or do could be a little awkward, or even make things worse.

Being supportive isn’t easy

Research shows that many people don’t really know what works best to help their friends effectively. Moreover, the support we do provide, such as giving advice, is often ineffective. Part of the challenge is that there are just so many possible ways to intervene. A survey of the methods that people used to manage their friends’ emotions identified 378 distinct strategies, including allowing the other person to vent their emotions, acting silly to make the other person laugh, and helping to rationalise the other person’s decisions. Given this large variety of strategies, it’s no wonder that deciding what to do when you have a friend in tears can be a little overwhelming.

Providing support is a skill that can be learned

The good news is that there are evidence-based support strategies you can learn that will help you provide more effective support to your friends. What’s more, providing support to your friends is good both for them and for you. Receiving social support from friends has benefits: in general, people who are supported tend to be more mentally and physically healthy. This might be because support from our friends and family is a strong buffer against the stress caused by tough times. Giving social support to friends also has benefits: when we support another person, it helps to strengthen our relationship with that person, and it makes us feel better (with the benefits being even greater when we feel like we’ve done a good job helping).

In this Guide, I will take you through five strategies to help you provide more effective emotional support to those who are struggling. For each strategy, I’ll give an example to help you see what this might look like in practice. These five strategies are broadly applicable but, later in the Guide, I’ll also cover some caveats to keep in mind.

What to do

Resist the urge to downplay your friend’s problems

Your friend Alex messages you, upset that he received a B in a college class. Your first impulse is to ignore the message – you think Alex is overreacting. He can handle this non-event on his own, and you don’t get why he is so upset. After a while, you figure you should respond. You write: ‘You’ll be fine, I don’t know why you’re worrying! Getting a B is pretty good and not the end of the world.’

When we think that someone is catastrophising something that (to us) is not a big deal, it can be tempting to ignore them, downplay them or be dismissive, but that would be a mistake and will likely end badly. Whatever your own take on your friend’s dilemma, it’s important to be responsive to their requests, and to prioritise trying to understand how they feel. Some studies suggest that being supportive is helpful only when we are responsive in this way. Moreover, being responsive to other people – trying to understand them, valuing their opinions and abilities, and making them feel cared for – is a cornerstone of good relationships.

So, in the above scenario with Alex, you might send a more thoughtful response, showing that you’re trying to understand how he feels: ‘I get why you’re upset, that sucks. I know you’re a hardworking and smart person, and I bet you’ll be able to get an A next time.’

In the longer term, a way to work on being more responsive and less dismissive is through setting compassionate goals. These involve focusing on supporting others, being constructive in interactions, and being understanding of others’ weaknesses. In a study with college students, people who reported setting goals that were more compassionate and less selfish had roommates who felt more supported by them. Cultivating a compassionate mindset is a useful background for all the remaining steps in this Guide.

Ask questions and really listen

You have coffee with your friend Jamie, who has just had a big argument with his partner. Your knee-jerk reaction is to think to yourself ‘Oh no, not another argument,’ to infer that Jamie is ready to leave the relationship (after all, that’s how you’d feel if you were him) and to show him that you’re on his side. You’re inclined to tell Jamie straight up that you get why he is angry, and that you agree it’s probably time to let the relationship go.

Just as playing down a friend’s problem is unwise, so too is trying to empathise too quickly, including jumping in with rapid advice. While this impulse is understandable and quite normal, it is also likely to go wrong. Although we tend to assume that we can tell how other people are thinking using our empathy, research has shown that we’re actually really bad at taking other people’s perspectives. One study, led by Tal Eyal at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, involved researchers asking people to put themselves in another’s shoes in 25 different contexts, including taking other people’s perspectives on movies, on activities, on social issues, and even on whether jokes were funny. In all these experiments, trying to take another person’s perspective didn’t work, and sometimes it even backfired.

So how might you best address the situation instead? In the research by Eyal and her colleagues, directly asking was the only thing that helped one person understand how another person felt. This suggests that in the above scenario it would be better to slow down and start by asking directly how Jamie is feeling, rather than thinking about how you might feel in a similar situation. In short, we’re not as good as we think at intuiting other people’s feelings, and it is better to ask questions and listen to the answers.

Listening well can also be a challenge, but again there is psychology research that can help. To be a more effective listener, you can begin with two easy tactics. First, be attentive to the other person, and signal that you’re listening carefully by using nonverbal signals (such as nodding and smiling) and brief phrases (such as ‘Mmhmm’ or ‘Oh really?’) Second, provide ‘scaffolding’ questions that help your friend to elaborate on their story or their feelings, such as: ‘And what happened next?’ or ‘How did you feel after that?’ This can help them feel supported and heard. These skills may seem self-evident, but they’re particularly easy to forget in the moment, as we get distracted by our phones, or inclined to hurry our friends along to get to the point of their stories.

A related technique to try is active listening, which is commonly used by therapists, and relatively simple to implement. One form of active listening involves paraphrasing what your friend is saying in your own words, which can help them feel better. For example, your friend might spend some time explaining a series of stressful events across their week, describing arguments with their spouse, a mounting workload and some worries about debt, and you might paraphrase by saying that it sounds like they are overwhelmed both at home and at work right now.

Give emotional support first, cognitive support second

Your friend Casey comes to you upset that she has lost a big client at work. You want to jump straight in and help Casey think more positively about things. You know that this client was taking up a lot of Casey’s time. So, now that client is out of the picture, Casey can do less overtime, and spend more time on new, exciting clients. This kind of reframing is likely to be helpful for Casey in the long term, but it’s not the best place to start your support.

In contrast to downplaying a friend’s problem – the first pitfall I mentioned above – helping a friend see a situation in a positive light (known as reframing) is a supportive strategy. However, it’s important that you don’t jump straight to it. In the situation with Casey, it would have been better to start things off by validating her feelings, which is a form of emotional support. Casey has come to you feeling awful, and jumping straight to discussing the bright side might leave her feeling as if you aren’t getting it. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have tried to find a silver lining for Casey at all – but, rather than beginning there, better to validate and comfort Casey as she talked through the situation. Once you’d shown that you get how she feels, then you could have helped her find the bright side, which is a form of cognitive support in the sense that you’re helping your friend to think differently.

It’s important to provide both emotional and cognitive support because, although people prefer to receive and provide emotional support (and to avoid cognitive support), emotional support alone is often ineffective at making people feel better over the long term. Using emotional support first and cognitive support second makes people feel better, reaping the benefits of both approaches.

One additional concern with cognitive support is making sure that the reframe you suggest doesn’t slip into invalidating or downplaying your friend’s feelings. The dividing line here can be difficult to navigate. The key is to ensure your reframe doesn’t negate your friend’s feelings that the initial situation was upsetting. Instead, focus your reframing on unexpected upsides not yet considered, or future avenues to move past the initial problem. In the example with Casey, the aim wouldn’t be to convince her that losing her client wasn’t hard, but rather to help her find other parts of the situation that might soften that blow.

More generally, adopting the one-two punch approach of always beginning with validation is likely to help with this problem: if you begin from a perspective of validating, it’ll become more obvious to you when the reframes you provide are contradicting that validation.

Don’t take charge

Your friend Jay has a terrible boss. Jay has been struggling to deal with this for a while, and they’ve been constantly unhappy. You think Jay should quit and find another job with a better mentor, and you tell them as much.

Although you had good intentions, telling Jay straight up to quit would be a mistake. Very direct and obvious help can sometimes make people feel as if they are helpless. In research, people who received obvious and visible social support – rather than subtle, invisible social support – felt more stressed about an upcoming negative event. If your support is too directive and take-charge, it might make your friend feel like they aren’t able to handle things on their own, like a kid who needs their parent’s help to manage their problems.

Instead, it would have been better to ask Jay what they want, and how they might be able to change this situation, and then listen to them talk through their options one by one. In doing this, you provide a sounding board for Jay to take control of the situation on their own. Your aim should be to facilitate the other person’s choices, rather than dominating them. This will help them organise their thoughts and come to some solutions, without feeling like you did it for them.

Avoid venting together

Your housemate Jordan calls you to complain about your other housemate Kirby. Kirby hasn’t been doing her share of the chores, and Jordan is at the end of his patience. You too are annoyed at Kirby and, after a while, you realise that you and Jordan have been going back and forth complaining about Kirby for 10 minutes, and now you’re both feeling pretty upset.

Sympathising with a friend’s dilemma and venting together might seem like a supportive strategy that shows you’re both in the same boat and you’re happy to talk it over at length. However, this approach can go too far. In the above scenario, it’s likely to pull you and Jordan into a downward spiral of negativity.

Although I’ve discussed ways in which talking about problems with your friends can help, if taken to an extreme, it can become a problematic issue called co-rumination. This involves talking excessively with other people about problems, and constantly dwelling on those problems together without looking for solutions. Such behaviour results in both people feeling worse, with co-ruminating associated with increases in anxiety and depression over time.

How might you stop that downward spiral? The good news is that, according to researchers, simply knowing that co-rumination exists might help people avoid these kinds of negative spirals, although this has not yet been directly examined in a study. So, begin by being on the lookout. In the scenario above, once you’d identified the venting spiral, you could have pointed it out to Jordan. Distraction can interrupt that feeling of being stuck in a problem so, next, you and Jordan could have agreed to stop the discussion for a few hours, and do something that distracts you both, before coming back to figure out how to deal with the issue. At this point, you could have considered enacting the validate-and-reframe pattern I mentioned earlier (supporting such an approach, there is evidence that reframing can interrupt spirals of rumination).

Key points – How to support a struggling friend

  1. Being supportive isn’t easy. Many people struggle to know the right thing to say or do to help.
  2. Providing support is a skill you can learn. There are evidence-based strategies you can use. What’s more, providing the right kind of support is good both for your friends and for you.
  3. Resist the urge to downplay your friend’s problems. Instead, aim to be compassionate and responsive to how your friend is feeling.
  4. Ask questions and really listen. Most of us aren’t as good at empathy as we think – so find out how your friend feels and show you’re paying attention.
  5. Give emotional support first, cognitive support second. Validate your friend’s feelings, and only then help them to see things in a more positive light.
  6. Don’t take charge. Avoid being directive about your opinions; instead, encourage your friend to come up with potential solutions so they feel in control of the problem.
  7. Avoid venting together. Dwelling on problems with your friend without looking for a solution is known as co-rumination. Use distraction to break out of these negative spirals.

Learn more

Tailoring your support

Not all supportive strategies will work in the same way for all people, cultures and situations. Now that we have good information about what works overall, researchers are starting to investigate how the optimal way to give support might vary depending on the who, where and when of the situation. Here are some of the most important findings to date:

Who: a relevant factor is the personality of the person being supported and in particular their self-esteem. In a series of studies, Denise Marigold at the University of Waterloo and her colleagues found that people with lower self-esteem benefited less from reframing and other forms of cognitive social support. As I discussed in the What to Do section above, this is the kind of support that involves positively reframing a friend’s experience (eg, ‘That terrible job interview was good practice for jobs you’ll care more about in the future’). People with lower self-esteem found this reframing cognitive support less helpful, and the people who provided the support felt worse about the interaction, themselves and their friendships more broadly. However, people with lower self-esteem were responsive to emotional support that validated their personal experiences. These findings indicate how important it is to think carefully about the personality of your friend and their preferences as you provide support.

Where: other research has investigated the role of culture in effective support. For instance, while much of the research I have discussed so far focuses on participants in Europe or the United States, crosscultural studies have demonstrated different dynamics among Asian and Asian American people. People with these backgrounds tend to request less support than Europeans and Americans because they fear that requesting too much support will strain their relationships. Perhaps as a result, whenever Asian and Asian American people have to ask for social support, they tend to find it less beneficial than any unsolicited support they receive. This suggests that, when giving support to Asian and Asian American people, it might be better to offer the support in a more subtle way, without waiting to be prompted.

Furthermore, research has demonstrated that social support may be more effective in some cultures, depending on people’s values. For instance, a study investigating Latino culture in the US found that this is characterised by familism, which values positive emotions, readily accessible social support from family, and a sense of shared obligation among community members. Among Latino participants, but not European or Asian participants, those people who more strongly endorsed familism tended to enjoy greater social support and better relationships. Related research suggests that among Latinos specifically, endorsement of familism is associated with deriving more health benefits from social support. Taken together, this work suggests that providing effective support may be particularly important in Latino communities that strongly endorse familism.

When: the role of situation in social support provision is another focus of research. One key distinction has been whether the support is given online (eg, through social media or messages) or in person. Despite the challenges involved in online interactions, studies in young people have found that providing support online can be helpful, especially for those who have less support available in person. Indeed, studies with young adults have found that support received digitally (eg, through messages and video calls) was just as helpful as face-to-face support. There tends to be some scepticism around the benefits of digital social support, but this research suggests that it may be a promising avenue, at least in young people. It’s unclear how well such studies will generalise across all age groups, but it does indicate that, if offering digital support is an available option (as is so often the case), then it is an avenue worth using. Many of the strategies discussed in this Guide are equally applicable in digital settings and can be used to support friends from afar.

Links & books

In this New York Times guide, the columnist Tara Parker-Pope discusses the research on how to be a better friend, including how to make friendships last, how to listen more effectively, and how to have better arguments.

The Psychology Podcast hosted by the cognitive scientist Scott Barry Kaufman has several episodes that are helpful to being a better friend, including one on developing emotion skills, with Marc Brackett of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and another on fostering positive relationships, with the social psychologist Sara Algoe.

The Ten Percent Happier podcast hosted by the journalist Dan Harris also has some relevant episodes, including one on making and keeping friends, with the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford, and another that makes the case for kindness, with Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Centre at the University of California, Berkeley.

In her TED talk ‘Helping Others Makes Us Happier – But It Matters How We Do It’ (2019), the psychologist Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia discusses the benefits we get from helping others, demonstrating that supporting our friends also has personal benefits.

The book The War for Kindness (2019) by the psychologist Jamil Zaki of Stanford University is excellent on the psychology of empathy. Zaki demonstrates that empathy is a skill we can develop, in order to be kinder and more supportive people.

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23 February 2022