Confessions are difficult, both for the speaker and the listener. It can be great to get something off their chest but it can be hard as a listener to know how to respond. Confessions can be heavy. They can push one into uncertain territory. The best thing to remember is that listening is key. If you’re being told something important, you’ve probably already proved yourself good at listening. Hearing difficult news can put those listening skills to the test. Make sure you stayed fully focused on what their saying and never interrupt.
If they pause, you can add nonjudgmental condolences. Phrases such as “that must be really difficult,” are perfect ways to show your listening without interrupting or providing evaluation. It may be tempting to say more than this (“I can’t believe that happened to you,” or “That person is cruel,” or “I feel so bad,” or “You must feel terrible,”) but be aware that any hint of a value or emotional judgement, positive or negative, could possibly cut them off from saying anything further. It’s important to let your friend think through everything on their own without imposing your own ideas. Only by letting them talk on their own will you get a full picture. That being said, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Again saying nothing with judgement but a simple rephrasing of what has already been said (“It sounds like …” or “What do you mean by …”) can allow them to really clarify or add on as well as show that you care. Rephrasing questions is also a wonderful fall back if you have no idea what else to say.
After getting a sense of the larger picture, you may be inclined to offer advice. But remember, it wouldn’t be a problem if it were easily fixed. Sometimes all that is needed is a thanks from you letting them know you appreciate them sharing. Other times, they may need guidance. If they are looking for help, give suggestions in the form of questions. “Have you tried …?”, “What about …?” and “What have you already done?” are great ways to do this. Suggestions and guidance are different from advice primarily because they come in the form of questions or “what ifs” rather than commands or demands. By navigating them through a solution instead of giving it to them, the solution becomes more long term.
Finally, if their problem is severe or consistent, make sure you don’t become the only confidant. It’s not fair to you or the other person. See if you can get them to open up to other friends and make sure they see a therapist. They may think their problem is not big enough to warrant a therapist or they may dislike the idea of therapy all together. But in order for there to be any real change, they need to see a professional. It is never your job to become anyone’s therapist.
On top of this, everyone needs a network of support. One person can start off positive, but it can eventually become a crutch. Encouraging them to pick other people they trust can assist them in handling bad days and negative attitudes more productively. A good indication that you’re falling into a dangerous role is if you feel burdened by what your friend tells you and see that they come to you and no one else with the same issue over and over. Therapy and openness are rarely easy, but they are often the only long term solutions. Don’t be afraid to bring them up.
McCoy is a third-year student who loves oversized sweaters and indie games. Her favorite word is gumption.