How to STFU and listen to a friend in need

Do you ever do that thing during a conversation when you use a personal example to illustrate your point, then come away feeling as if you made entire the situation about yourself?

I do.

It’s not out of vanity or narcissism, it’s simply because we want to let the other person know we can relate to them. It’s our way of saying ‘hey, I understand’ but it doesn’t always come across that way. Picture the scene, your friend has had a row with their significant other so you meet for coffee. You tell your friend that you’ve actually faced the same problem, you tell them all about it and how you over came it… then suddenly you realise in a bid to help your friend you’ve only spoken about yourself for half an hour.

You probably made some valuable points, but the key to really helping your friend out is learning how to help them unlock the answers for themselves. Context matters, situations change and you don’t have to give advice until your friend has explicitly asked for it. Asking the right questions and creating a space for your friend to really open up can be much more valuable than unsolicited advice.

Great questions good listeners ask

Open – That sounds really tough, how are you handling it?
This gives your friend permission to open up and discuss the things they’re doing to cope with/address their problems. Not only are you acknowledging your friend’s feelings, you’re focusing on working through them instead of wallowing. No examples, no suggestions; just silence that they can fill. Speaking about how your friend is handling the situation prompts them to evaluate if the way they’re reacting is actually helping their situation or hindering it.

Probing – Is there anything I can do to help out?
Sometimes your friends are too proud or embarrassed to ask for help with things. Take the lead on the dialogue and see how you can chip in. It might be something as simple as helping them look for job opportunities or attending an appointment with them – just let them know you’re available for them.

Hypothetical – How do you want the situation to play out?
When we vent it feels like we’re stuck in the moment. It can be hard for your friend to work towards solving their problem if they don’t even see an end in sight. Ask them what the best case scenario is and start working towards it together.

Leading – How long has this been going on?
This is a particularly good question to ask when a friend comes to you with relationship questions because it helps to establish how much water is under the bridge. Context is key and if it feels like your friend is being dramatic about something small, there’s likely to be a whole history of events that you don’t understand. Reflecting on this is healthy for your friend because it gives them the chance to evaluate the situation as a whole.

Reflective – Do you think there’s something else causing the issue?
Sometimes it’s not always the immediate issue at hand that’s the problem. For example, you friend might be glossing over their own behavioral issues that run a little deeper and are the root cause of their problems. This one is a bit tricky to ask because you don’t want to offend anyone or point the finger of blame, but simply planting the seed for them to think a little deeper can help them confront their own issues.

Probing, open, reflective, leading and hypothetical questions will all help your friend explore their situation. It’s really important that you use these techniques to bounce off what your friend is saying.

Be an active listener

Do you ever feel like you know what your friend is about to say before they’ve finished their sentence? If so, you’re probably a bad listener.

Never make assumptions. If you’re focusing on what you think your friend is about to say, you’re not really taking on board what they’re actually saying – and you’re missing out on other social cues such as body language. Stop being a flipping know-it-all!

It’s really important for you to listen intently and feedback what you’ve heard. So for example, when you ask a question based on something they’ve said repeat the words back to them to add context to your question. It validates them and lets them know you’re locked into the conversation.

When you’re actively listening you don’t have to think about offering advice. You don’t even have to think about your next question. You just have to let your friend loosen up about what’s going on.

Part of this deal means that you’re going to need to be comfortable with silence. In fact, you might even feel a bit awkward about not being able to fill the silence with advice at first. That’s ok! You need to embrace it because once your friend is relaxed they’ll start to fill the void themselves.

Be aware that before this happens, they may mistake the silence for the conversation being over. Don’t let them have a chance to say ‘Oh I’m sure it will be fine anyway‘ if they’ve openly said they want to talk. If they do, gently coax them back by saying ‘I’m sure it will be but how do you see yourself getting there?’

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So instead of yelling ‘DUMP HIM’ into the void when your friend comes to you hurt and upset, start using these questioning techniques to figure out a solution together. Just try it, you’re going to need practice! Being a good listener is a core element of forging strong friendships. So make yourself available, put the kettle on and stfu.

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