We all know how hard it can be to help a friend who is struggling. It’s not that we don’t want to help or aren’t willing to do the work or give our time; in some situations, it’s just difficult to know the best way to lend a hand.
In her beautiful book A Manual for Heartache, memoirist Cathy Rentzenbrink explains that many people approached her after the publication of her first memoir with exactly this question: how do I help a friend in need?
People did not want to bring up even more bad feelings for their friends struggling with grief. Some preferred to avoid speaking about tough topics altogether.
What Rentzenbrink and many others have discovered is that it’s exactly this kind of fear that leads us to stay silent, which only ends up leaving our struggling friends further isolated.
We’ve established it’s important that we help our struggling friends. But also, that we don’t always know how to help. And maybe our hesitation makes sense:
Our first instinct when a friend is in need, may be to reassure them everything’s ok, or to give them advice.
Both of these instincts miss the point. When our friends are struggling, they usually don’t want advice or blind reassurances.
This poem, by the renowned late psychologist Leo Buscaglia, illustrates exactly what people need, when they need support.
When I ask you to listen to me
and you start giving me advice,
You have not done what I asked.
When I ask you to listen to me
and you begin to tell me why
I shouldn’t feel that way,
you are trampling on my feelings.
When I ask you to listen to me
and you feel you have to do something
to solve my problem,
you have failed me,
strange as that may seem.
Listen! All I ask is that you listen.
Don’t talk or do – just hear me…
And I can do for myself; I am not helpless.
Maybe discouraged and faltering,
but not helpless.
When you do something for me that I can and need to do for myself,
you contribute to my fear and
But when you accept as a simple fact
That I feel what I feel,
No matter how irrational,
Then I can stop trying to convince
You and get about this business
Of understanding what’s behind
This irrational feeling.
And when that’s clear, the answers are obvious and I don’t need advice.
Irrational feelings make sense when
we understand what’s behind them.
So please listen, and just hear me.
And if you want to talk, wait a minute
for your turn– and I will listen to you.
The good news is, no matter what situation your friend is in — whether they are stressed after losing a job, dealing with grief or heartbreak, or coping with depression or other mental health struggles — there is a handy way to offer help without fear of adding to their difficulties. It’s called ALAN!
ALAN stands for Ask, Listen, Action, and Network. Think of it as a handy checklist you can tick off step by step as you help your friend in need.
Rather than launching into offering help or advice, approach your friend with gentle, open-ended questions to allow them the space to speak if they feel up to it. Just knowing that you are interested and care about their wellbeing can do wonders for someone who feels isolated in despair.
You might not be able to personally relate to the specific loss or issue your friend is dealing with. But you can be honest about that, too. Don’t be afraid to ask, “How are you feeling?” (as long as it’s genuine).
You can also admit that you are not sure what to say in this situation, but you want to check in with them because your friend and their wellbeing are important to you.
For some of us, especially the ones who love to take action and problem-solve, this is the tricky bit: Some people just want to vent and do not want you to offer advice. Let your friend speak about how they are feeling. Don’t interrupt, and don’t attempt to solve their problems.
Especially in the case of momentous losses, you probably won’t be able to solve their problem, no matter what you do. But you can hold space for them to express their sadness and to tell you their worries. You can help your friend by simply listening, and letting them know they have someone they can trust.
Okay, now is the step for the problem-solvers! If your friend seems to want help — remember it is good to ask them directly if they want help and advice before you offer it! — you can help them to formulate a plan of action.
SMART is another acronym that can help you and your friend take steps in the right direction without getting overwhelmed. It stands for “Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely.” This method essentially boils down to breaking a big goal into small, more manageable steps.
If your friend is depressed, their overall goal might be to feel better. But that’s also really vague.
Take that vague goal and find concrete examples of what this may look like and how it can be achieved. A small step might be to find a therapist, or join an online peer support chat if that’s easier. Set a date with your friend to hold them accountable, or offer to go through potential therapists together.
Please do remember, this only really works if your friend is willing to take these next steps. Always wait for cues from them and do not be afraid to ask questions to clarify what they want from you and your help. Be cautious of overstepping or adding unhelpful pressure.
Having a network to rely on is extremely vital for anyone dealing with a difficult period in their lives. Be clear with your friend that they are loved and supported. Maybe they are not ready to answer how they are feeling, or to form a plan of action to feel better.
Maybe they just need time alone for awhile. But knowing you are there when they are ready to talk is an enormous comfort.
A support network is more than a two-way street between you and your friend. Picture it as a verdant tree, with branches extending onwards and onwards, splitting off into more and more branches. What we’re trying to say is, when you are working to support someone going through a difficult time, you may need a network of support as well.
Don’t be afraid to reach out for help, yourself. You can’t pour from an empty cup.
We hope our buddy ALAN will help you and your friend cope with future difficulties, and make the process of supporting each other a little less confusing.
For helping someone who’s in crisis, your best bet may be to seek professional help. But until you can get that help, this infographic from Mental Health First Aid USA might help:
Please do keep in mind that if someone is suicidal, they need immediate, professional attention. Here are some services you can use now if this is the case:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line: text HOME to 741741
American Foundation For Suicide Prevention (resources and information)
SAVE.org (suicide prevention, information, and awareness)