When You’re the First to Know: Helping a Friend through a Problem
It’s SCARY when someone you know is depressed, maybe even suicidal. Talking about your own “bad” feelings is hard enough. Talking about someone else’s problems may seem impossible.
How can you know the “right” things to say or do when a friend, son/daughter, or other relative has a serious problem? What if you mess up? You’d walk around feeling guilty for a long time. So why take a chance? Why get involved? Besides, how do you know if your friend is really depressed? Maybe s/he is joking around. Or maybe s/he is just trying to get your attention. How can you find out what’s really going on? What can you do once you know?
Josh started giving things away—his books, his calculators, his good pens. He wouldn’t be needing them anymore. Josh had had enough. He couldn’t stand the pressure: All the pushing to stay at the top of his class, to get all A‘s, to get into the best college. He was tired. The pain was too much. Josh had decided to kill himself.
He walked home from school alone, working out the details of his suicide. He would rig up a noose in the basement and hang himself when no one was home.
“Hey, Josh,” his friend, Dylan, yelled, interrupting his thoughts.
Why did Dylan have to bother him now? Josh kept walking.
“Wait up!” Dylan said again, as he ran to catch up with Josh.
Josh didn’t stop.
“What’s wrong with you?” Dylan asked, out of breath, once he’d caught up.
“Why didn’t you wait?”
“Didn’t feel like it.”
“Didn’t feel like it? Well, screw you!”
“Yeah, screw me. That’s what I’m about to do.”
Dylan was surprised. Why was Josh acting so hostile? “Something bothering you?” he asked.
“Yeah . . . lots of things.”
“Like I’ve had it up to here,” he said, pointing to his neck.
“What could possibly be wrong with you?” Dylan asked. Your life is all set.”
“That’s what you think,” Josh mumbled.
“That’s what I know. You’ve got it all together. Valedictorian of the senior class . . . Harvard freshman. What more could you ask for?”
“Come on, Josh, you’re acting crazy.”
“I feel crazy. I’m all messed up inside.” He paused. Should he even bother?
“You? Messed up? Come on, you’ve got to be joking.”
Fine. He’d tell him. “I’m going to kill myself.”
Dylan looked at his friend. He couldn’t be serious. Not Josh.
“I mean it. I want to die,” Josh said, as if reading Dylan’s thoughts.
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Dumb to you, maybe . . . ”
Dylan started to laugh. “Here’s Mr. Together telling me he wants to die. Give me a break.”
Josh was angry. “I’ll give you a break,” he said as he walked away. “You’ll never have to deal with me again!”
Dylan stood and watched his best friend practically trip over his own feet in his hurry to get away. Josh was upset. He’d cool off. Everything would be fine.
Everything would not be fine. Josh had taken a big risk by letting Dylan in on his problems and plan to kill himself. But Dylan hadn’t taken him seriously. Dylan couldn’t believe that someone who apparently had everything going for him would want to kill himself. He was sure Josh was joking. And when Josh told Dylan he was dead serious, Dylan cut him down. He told him it was the dumbest thing he’d ever heard. Dylan’s inability to listen to Josh without criticizing—without judging—made Josh angry. Here he had opened up and tried to talk about his suicidal feelings, and all he’d gotten was a supposed friend who thought it was all one big joke.
What could Dylan have done differently? How could he have helped Josh?
When Dylan saw Josh giving things away, he thought it was a bit strange. What was Josh doing? Didn’t he need his books, calculators, and pens?
Dylan pulled Josh aside after lunch. “Why are you giving all your stuff away?” he asked.
“Don’t need it,” Josh mumbled. “Don’t need anything.”
Dylan was confused. Josh wasn’t making sense. “I don’t get it,” he said.
“Nobody gets it. That’s the point.”
Josh was talking in circles. “You sound unhappy,” Dylan said.
“I’m not feeling too great. That’s for sure.”
“Interested in talking? If you are, I’m willing to listen.”
Should he tell him? “I’ve had it up to here,” Josh said, pointing to his neck. “The pressure is too much. My parents, school . . . myself.”
Dylan felt sorry for him. “It must be rough trying to get all A’s.”
“When I was up for Most Valuable Player of the baseball team, I was so nervous. I couldn’t concentrate on hitting the ball.”
“I know what you mean,” Josh said sadly.
Dylan was afraid. “You’re not thinking of doing anything crazy, are you?”
Josh stared down at his shoes.
“Come on, Josh, fill me in.”
Okay. He’d tell him. “I’m going to kill myself.”
“You’re really down, aren’t you?”
“Yeah.” He started to cry. “I can’t take it anymore.”
Dylan bit the inside of his lip. He couldn’t panic. Not now. He’d have to take charge. “Tm worried about you,” he said sincerely.
“I want to help.”
“Nobody can help.”
Dylan had to think fast. “How about talking to Ms. Dreiser?”
“She wouldn’t understand.”
“Why not try her? You might be surprised.”
Josh was tired. “I can handle it. Really, I can.”
“I won’t leave you alone,” Dylan said. “You’re my best friend. I won’t let you hurt yourself.”
Josh was relieved. He slumped down on the floor in front of his locker, knowing that Dylan meant what he had said.
Maybe you just can’t get involved in helping a friend or relative with a problem. You’ve tried, but emotional conflicts make you uneasy. What should you do, then, when someone comes to you for help? Be honest. Tell the person that you care a lot but that you aren’t the right person to talk to. If you can, suggest someone else—another friend, a teacher, counselor, or parent. And, later, check up to see how things are going.
On the other hand, you may be a listener who feels comfortable helping a young person with a problem. You know you can’t solve others’ problems for them but you can encourage them to open up and talk. You can find out how serious the problems are. You can show you care. And maybe you can help your friends see alternatives—different ways of making things better.
Friends Are Usually The First To Know
When you have a problem, to whom do you talk? Your parents? A teacher? A good friend? Most young people turn to a good friend. Friends know where you’re coming from. They know what it’s like to be young.
Often, parents and teachers have a harder time remembering what it’s like. They think back on their teenage years as the “best time of their lives.” They’ve forgotten the pain of breaking up with a boyfriend or girl friend. They can’t remember how much pressure there was to get good grades. They don’t recall those days when being like everyone else was more important than anything. Most adults have blocked out the pain; they only remember the good times. But your friends are right there with you, trying to make some sense out of it all.
Some friends seem to know exactly what to say when you’re feeling down. They listen to you and really hear what you’re saying. They manage to help you see what is wrong and what to do next.
What Makes A Good Listener?
Good listeners try to hear what you have to say. They don’t order you to get rid of “bad” feelings; they accept them. They don’t tell you what to do. They don’t put you down or make you feel guilty. And they don’t make you feel that you are the problem.
Becoming A Better Listener: Show You’re Listening
You can say a lot without uttering a word. How? The way you look at a person, your posture, the way you move all give clear messages about how you’re feeling.
You’re not convinced? Picture this: You finally get up the nerve to tell your best friend that you think you need psychiatric help. Your whole world is caving in. Nothing is going right.
“I’ve got to talk to you,” you say. Your friend looks away.
“Come on, it’s really important.”
Your friend shuffles back and forth, flipping the pages of the book he’s holding.
“I need to talk to you, and you could care less.”
“Who said I don’t care? Did I say that?”
“No, you didn’t say it . . . well, not exactly. But that’s what you’re telling me.”
What went wrong? Why did you lose faith in your friend and his interest in what you had to say? Your friend didn’t make eye contact with you; he looked away. He moved around while you were talking and fidgeted with his book. His actions told you he wasn’t really interested in what you were saying, even though he denied not caring.
Now imagine the same scene played differently:
“I’ve got to talk to you.”
Your friend looks you straight in the eye.
“I think I need psychiatric help.”
Your friend leans forward.
“Nothing is going right. Nothing.”
Several people walk by the two of you in the school corridor. Your friend doesn’t seem to notice.
“The minute I wake up, I feel sick to my stomach. The feeling never goes away.”
Right off the bat, your friend showed you he was interested in what you had to say. He made eye contact but didn’t stare. That made you want to keep talking. “I think I need psychiatric help.” There. You said it. Would he laugh in your face? No. Instead, he leaned forward.
You kept talking. Other people walked by the two of you in the school corridor, but your friend still concentrated on you and what you were saying. His actions told you that he wanted to hear more and really cared.
Nonverbal actions—facial and eye expressions, gestures, and posture—say a lot. They can tell someone that you care and that you’re listening or they can tell a person that you don’t give a darn, even if you think you do.
Mirroring A Friend’s Feelings1
You would think that friends with problems would be able to tell you exactly how they feel . . . nervous, sad, hurt, embarrassed. But when most people express their feelings, they usually don’t use feeling words. They’re upset and can’t think clearly. And they’ve been trained not to talk about negative or “bad” feelings. It’s no wonder that talking about problems is rough. Who wants to admit their life isn’t perfect? Who wants to admit they have problems they can’t solve?
The trick of good listening is getting people to talk about themselves and their feelings. One of the best ways to help friends or family numbers understand their feelings better is to be a mirror, to reflect back the feelings you think you hear and see.
Here’s how mirroring works: A good friend of yours wanted the nomination for class president but didn’t get it. Looking defeated, he says: “I didn’t get the nomination. There were too many people more qualified than me.”
After giving yourself enough time to think about what your friend was feeling and what made him feel that way, you might say: “You’re feeling that the other kids are better than you because you weren’t nominated.”
You reflected, or mirrored, your friend’s hurt feelings (“You’re feeling the other kids are better than you”.) and you told him why you thought he was feeling hurt (“because you weren’t nominated.”) You restated your friend’s message. You reflected what he felt, and why. Feedback is what’s going on here. Not repetition. If you simply repeated what was said, you’d get your friend angry in a hurry. He’d think you were nothing more than a tape recorder.
Fine, you think. You know what a friend is feeling, and why. But what do you say? How do you mirror? Some people like using a pattern: You feel ________because _____________. But don’t think you’re locked into this pattern. You can change “You feel” to “You’re feeling,” “You sound,” “You seem,” or anything else that works. You can change “because” to “about,” “with,” “at,” or “by.” The important thing is that you catch the meaning behind the words and restate what you think you hear. And you’ll want to mirror what you think your friend is feeling, and why. Unless you have psychic powers, you can’t read your friend’s mind. So don’t tell him what’s going on. Mirror what you think has been said. If you’re checking out a hunch—not playing a know-it all—you’ll have a much better chance of getting your friend to talk.
Here is an example of how mirroring works.
JANE: I don’t see why my mother won’t let me go to the party.
SUE: You’re angry because your morn won’t let you go.
JANE: I sure am! She’s so unfair.
SUE: You think she’s not treating you right.
JANE: I know she’s not. She said I had to finish my homework, and I did. She doesn’t believe me.
SUE: You’re upset because she doesn’t think you’re telling the truth.
JANE: She never believes me.
SUE: Can you show her your assignment notebook and the completed homework?
SUE: You’re not sure whether she’ll change her mind.
JANE: My mother is very stubborn.
SUE: That frustrates you, because it’s hard to get her to see things your way.
JANE: You said it! But maybe if I cool down and talk to her nicely, she’ll let me go to the party.
Mirroring takes practice. But the more you practice, the better you’ll be. If you want to help your friends share their feelings, try mirroring. It works with parents, teachers, brothers, and sisters, too.
When A Friend Won’t Talk
Even the best listeners run into people who won’t talk. What’s next? First, you might try making a guess about nonverbal messages . . . eye and facial expressions, gestures, and posture. If your friend is smiling, or gritting her teeth, or fidgeting, say something like: “You seem happy.” “Looks like you’re angry.” “You seem really nervous.” Your friend may tell you you’re off base. Or your “guess” may open up a good conversation. “I’m nervous. You can say that again! My parents are going to kill me when they see these grades.”
Another way to get a conversation going is to ask a question. “How’s it going with you and Marc?” You may get a one word answer: “Okay,” “Great,” “Fine”—all ways of saying “I don’t feel like talking.” Or your simple question could start an interesting talk.
“How’s it going with Marc?”
“Not so hot. He’s never interested in doing anything.”
“You’re bored because of it?”
“I’m losing interest fast!”
“Sounds like you’re thinking of breaking up with him.”
“Yeah, but if I do that, who is there left to go out with?”
Once the listener asked a direct question and got an answer, she used mirroring to reflect what she thought her friend was feeling and why. Mirroring encouraged her friend to talk more about her boyfriend and why she was unhappy with him. It showed her friend that she was listening carefully and that she cared.
How To Ask Good Questions
You’ve keyed in on a friend’s nonverbal messages—her dejected look and lack of energy—and “guessed” that she is depressed. Almost inaudibly, she admits you’re right and mumbles something about “hurting so much she wishes she could die.” You give yourself enough time to word your response and then say, “You must be very unhappy if you’re talking about death.” Your friend doesn’t answer. She probably knows that you’re willing to listen, but doesn’t have the strength to talk. You can wait her out or you can try asking some good questions. Asking questions is the key to finding out more information and to exploring possible alternatives for solving the problem.
Questions that can be answered with a “yes,” “no,” or defensive response won’t get you anywhere.
“Are you still having trouble at home?”
“Why don’t you talk to your parents?”
“Do you think you should talk to a counselor?”
Questions like these don’t encourage a friend to share information. They may even cut off your attempt at conversation.
Questions that do encourage sharing often begin with where, when, what, who, which, or how.
“What is making you feel so down?”
“When did your parents separate?”
“How are you going to talk to them?”
These kinds of questions usually keep a conversation going. They ask for information that you need or for feelings that your friend can share. Yet asking a good question does not guarantee that your friend will open up. The way you ask the question—your tone of voice and the nonverbal messages you send—are very important. No one who is challenged is likely to want to talk. But even so, the tone of your voice and your nonverbal messages can fail, even if your question is a good one and your heart is in the right place.
Exploring Ways Of Solving A Friend’s Problem
You’ve paid attention to nonverbal messages, mirrored a friend’s feelings, and asked some good questions. Both you and your friend know and understand what is wrong. Now it’s time to explore different ways of solving the problem or for you to suggest that your friend talk to someone else. You’re not superhuman. Sometimes other peoples’ problems are just too big to handle. If that’s the case, don’t leave your friend up in the air. Tell him you’re glad he’s confided in you and hope that he trusts you. Then be honest and tell him you think he should talk to someone else. Help him consider different people and choose the right” one. And set a time when the two of you can get back together to talk.
If you feel comfortable working with your friend and helping him look at possible solutions to his problem, ask him something like, “Do you want to look at some possible ways of solving the problem?” If he says “yes,” you and he can make some headway. (If he’s not so enthusiastic, tell him you understand and offer your help for an other time.)
What’s next? How about brainstorming? That’s right. Ask your friend to think of all the possible ways he could solve his problem.
“I could kill myself.”
“I could talk to a counselor.”
“I could do nothing.”
“I could beg my parents to get back together.”
That’s great, you’re thinking. But what if your friend can’t come up with any ideas? Try asking if someone else he knows has the same problem. “What if Paul felt the same way? What would you tell him?” Or try reversing roles. Have your friend take the role of the person he’s having a problem with. You take his role. This gives you the chance to show how you would handle the problem.
Or make a suggestion. Now, that’s different from giving advice. Advice tells someone what he should do. A suggestion offers an idea that can be accepted or rejected.
“What do you think would happen if you talked to a counselor?” “Have you thought about joining a group with other kids?” Once there are a variety of possible solutions up for discussion, ask your friend to evaluate each one.
“What do you think about seeing a counselor?”
“Well, the idea makes me nervous, but it might be worth a try.”
“What about killing yourself? Do you have a plan?”
“No. Every time I think about pills or sitting in a closed garage with the car running, I get sick to my stomach.”
“Doesn’t sound like you want to kill yourself, because the methods make you sick.” (Mirroring)
“I guess you’re right.”
“You talked about begging your parents not to get a divorce.”
“Yeah, but that won’t work. They’re not going to change their minds because of me or anyone else.”
“Well, you said something about doing nothing. How’s that sound?”
“Not so hot. I can’t stand feeling like this. I want to scream.”
“It sounds like you want to do something to make yourself feel better.” (Mirroring)
“I guess seeing someone is the best idea.”
“You don’t seem very convinced.” (Mirroring)
“I’m nervous. I told you that before. What if he thinks I’m really messed up and wants to put me in one of those hospitals?”
“You’re afraid he’ll want to put you away.” (Mirroring)
“Yeah, it scares me. I know I’m messed up, but I’m not some weirdo.”
“How could the counselor help you?”
“I don’t know. He probably can’t.”
“You don’t think there’s any way out of the pain.” (Mirroring)
“That’s the way it feels.”
“What would you like the counselor to do?”
“I’d like him to help me feel happy again. I used to feel so happy . . .”
“Are you willing to find out which counselor to see?”
“It doesn’t sound as if you’re that serious about trying.” (Mirroring)
“I am . . . I’ll try.”
“Why don’t I call you tomorrow and see how you feel?”
Once someone chooses a possible alternative to his problem, it’s a great idea to ask good questions and help clarify the reasons for the choice. Where in this conversation did the listener ask her friend to clarify the choice?
If you said when she asked, “How could the counselor help you?” you were right. Notice that that question and the one following it begin with How and What—two words that usually begin open questions, questions that encourage an answer. Did you also notice that the listener asked her friend to follow up on her choice (“Are you willing to find out which counselor to see?”) and that she set a time to talk again? That way, she let her friend know that there would be a chance to see how the choice was working.
When most people think of communication, they think of talking. But listening is really the most important part of communication between two people. If you want to help friends sort through their feelings and focus on what needs to be done, there are some good listening techniques to follow:
Paying Attention To Nonverbal Messages
You and your friends say a lot without ever uttering a word. Facial and eye expressions, posture, and gestures all give clear messages about how you or a friend is feeling. As a good listener, you’ll want to pay attention to the nonverbal signals you send. If a friend feels that you’re interested in what is being said by the way you look and act, chances are better that you will have a good conversation.
Keying in on the nonverbal messages a friend is giving you is also important. Sometimes, particularly when a friend isn’t talking, you can make a “guess” about feelings, based on nonverbal actions. Your friend may tell you that your “guess” is way off base, or your “guess” may open up the conversation. Paying attention to nonverbal messages is one good listening skill.
As we’ve discussed, one of the best ways to help a hurting friend “see” what s/he really is feeling is to mirror, or reflect, what you think you hear and see. When you mirror, you restate a friend’s message without adding any of your own feelings to it. Mirroring is a way of checking out feelings, not a way for you to play a know-it-all.
A lot of people like using a pattern when they mirror. But the pattern is just a device that can easily be changed. The important thing is to catch the meaning behind what a friend is saying and to restate what you think you hear.
Asking Good Questions
Asking good questions is the key to finding out more information from a friend and to exploring possible solutions. Good questions encourage a friend to share and often begin with Where, When, What, Who, Which, or How. These kinds of questions usually keep a conversation going. However, they don’t guarantee that a friend will talk. The way you ask the question—your tone of voice and the nonverbal messages you send—is very important. It can make the difference between opening and blocking a friend’s eagerness to share information with you.
Good questions also help someone explore ways of solving a problem. They can ask a friend to brainstorm or to reverse roles. Good questions can also allow you to make a suggestion. (“Have you thought about . . . ?”) Finally, good questions help people clarify the reasons why a particular plan of action was chosen. Sometimes they might even decide on a different plan after looking carefully at the first choice.
If A Friend Is Talking About Suicide
1. Listen without preaching; don’t lecture—mirror what you think you hear and see.
2. Ask good questions (“How do you plan on killing yourself?” “What do you think it would be like to be dead?”)
3. Let the friend know she/he is not alone (“I have felt some of these things, too.”)
4. Take charge; don’t leave a suicidal friend alone.
5. Get help; call a teacher, counselor, or parent, or the police or suicide hot line.
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