How to approach a friend in tough times when they want to talk about it?

When we care about someone, we want to always be there for them. Even so, sometimes it’s hard to know how to ask someone who’s suffering if he wants to talk about it.
We may even dare to ask: “how are you?”…
But we know that most of the time, we’ll get a vague response like “fine.” And that’s pretty much everything we get them to say… But they still seem distressed.
We also know that if we push further, it may get the person to shut deeper down. Not everyone vents or can speak their feelings; sometimes, they’re too shy.
Or perhaps, they have problems with sharing their emotions. They may see it as weakness or as if they are bothering others. Some people don’t want to think about what is causing them pain…
So… How to ask a friend in pain if they want to talk about it?
I wouldn’t say it’s an easy thing,
But if there’s a way to do it, it’s through empathy. Let’s see why.

Empathy vs. sympathy: getting a person in pain to talk to you

If we revise the definition for both words, they may seem the same.
According to the Merriam Webster definitions, we can find that:

Empathy is: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner” (Webster, n.d)

Sympathy is: “the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc.a sympathetic feeling” (Webster, n.d)

As you can see, the difference may not be so evident regarding emotions. So, let’s expand the terms a bit.
When we are sympathetic to someone, we tend to share their feeling in ourselves. It’s like knowing what they feel and truly feeling sad about that person. But does it include considering the real needs of that person?
It often doesn’t. We want to let the person know that we’ve been through it and understand. But we also tend to make it about ourselves.
Or even more awkward! We try to make the person “shake it off” by telling them some others (like ourselves) have had it just like them, or worst. That will NOT get them to talk.
Just ask yourself, would you like to be struggling with something you feel and get someone else to tell you that you shouldn’t feel what you are experiencing?
I bet you don’t!
Do you see know why this isn’t the best way to get a friend in need to talk to you?

Empathy, on the contrary, demonstrates a higher sensibility. While it allows separating yourself from the pain itself, it drives you closer to your friend’s unique situation.
Empathy relates more to connection.
It recognizes the value of your friend’s feelings and that the pain they’re feeling is hurting them. Therefore, it becomes easier to consider what THAT person may need.
Naturally, having the resources or skills to practice empathy is not always easy.

Educating yourself may help manage these situations if you want to help your friend. Or if you are afraid they may be in danger if the circumstance doesn’t get solved.
On the other hand,
If you’re here, that’s what you’re doing, exactly. So, thank you for that!
And in return, I want you to provide some resources and help you on that noble quest of helping your friend to talk about their pain.
But, before we move on -and if you want a more graphic explanation- This video explains the differences between empathy and sympathy in a simple way:

How to tell a friend in pain that they can talk to you: step by step

You must first understand that this is not an exact formula. This guide will give you hints on approaching your friends in an empathetic way.
But if you genuinely want to tell your friend in pain that they can talk to you, you MUST connect with them.
In that sense, the following are to be seen as entry tools to approach a shut person. And NEVER as infallible or as a substitute for professional help.
Once that said, let’s begin:

Identify the signals

You probably know your friend better than I do. So, if there’s some distressing situation going on in their life, you probably already know it. But the fundamental signs you should be mindful of are those that show the person is not being able to cope with the situation. The most obvious may be the changes in their behavior; perhaps they are more quiet than usual, or they are self-absorbing in work.

But, some other signs may be more subtle. The person may not be taking care of their hygiene or appearance so much. They may look tired or be distant. They may be having trouble with domestic chores. Helping with the dishes or bringing some new/clean clothes is an excellent way to create momentum for the conversation.

how to approach a friend in tough times

Choose your time wisely.

Not every place and every moment are comfortable for having these conversations. Whether calling your friend or meeting in person, make sure the environment is as safe and free of distractions as possible.

Check that YOU are prepared to listen.

If you ask this person to be vulnerable and open up around you, you MUST be ready to provide support.

Make sure you’re emotionally and mentally able to stay by their side and be company on those words. If you fail to be present and mindful in the conversation, your friend may feel hurt and end up shutting even further.

Don’t give the situation for granted.

Many people find it hard to open up at first. Or maybe they don’t do it because they feel like a burden. Make sure that you don’t take the first “I’m okay” for granted. Ask again once in a while. I don’t mean being invasive and gossipy. But frequent –not insistent-, reminders that you’re willing to hear maybe everything that person needs to open up finally. You asking them may make them understand that you care for real. And trust you.

Be there and listen instead of trying to fix it.

Trying to fix their problems is one of the most common mistakes when approaching a friend. We can’t fix many of these situations like that, and they need time and tools you may not have. Instead of bursting whatever words first cross your mind, make sure you’re listening to the emotions behind their words.

Sometimes, being there and holding a hand in silence is all they need.

Mind what you say

We’ve all been in that situation where something sounds better in our head than when we say it. And this particular situation tends to be very common when talking to someone in pain. So, try to keep your words simple and focused on what the other person feels. Think twice before saying anything that could be rude or hurtful towards your friend.

Ask if you can offer practical help.

Sometimes, there’s nothing you can say to help. But, if the person is struggling to eat. Suppose they’re overloaded with work. Or if they can’t do chores at home… You may offer to do some of that for them. And in other order of ideas, if you feel like you can’t do anything for them, try recommending professional help in a considerate and kind way.

Share your own story and remind them you love them.

In the end, sharing a part of your story that may resonate and show you as vulnerable too may help them to feel accompanied. But the most crucial part is that you remind them of your love and care. IF you want to dig deeper into these tricks, you may find more information here:

Now, let’s see what we SHOULDN’T say to a person in pain that doesn’t want to talk.

What not to say to someone that doesn’t want to talk

More than a specific thing to avoid, it’s like a general behavior.

Diminishing their feelings or making them see themselves as exaggerated is NEVER the way to approach a person in pain. Any “At least you’re not…” answer will come across as rude to the person.

While sharing your own story may help, trying to make it about you and how you had it worst may make your friend feel unheard. Rather than help, you may end showing up as insensitive.

Finally, insisting on your friend to talk to you, get over the problem, or implement your solutions, won’t help either. This will only increase the sensation of overwhelm that they may be feeling. And probably make them get away from you.

Examples of empathetic ways to approach or respond to a friend in pain

According to Harvard research, just asking “How are you” is most of the time futile. It’s better to ask follow-up questions and respond with elaborated phrases, as they build up better trust among humans.

Some good phrases and questions that are more likely to come across as empathetic would be:

You seem a bit not like yourself lately – is everything going well?

Recently, you’re not sharing with us as much as you used to – is there something going on?

You know, I’ve been worrying about you; would you talk to me about what’s going on?

There’s no rush on saying anything; take your time. I know it may take some time to talk. And I’ll be here when you are prepared.

I’ve noticed the last few weeks have been rough; tell me more about it, please.

How’s that making you feel? How does it affect you? What does it feel like for you?

Okay, let me check that I understood what you said.

Thanks for trusting me; I know it’s hard for you to say these things.

I worry about you and want to help, but I don’t want to push you or get in the way. Would you please let me know if I am? I’ll still be there if you prefer to talk at another moment.

What can I do to support or help?

Do you want me to try and help, or do you prefer to listen and accompany you?

Have you tried some solutions? I remember a therapist that helped me once. Have you thought about getting professional help?

As you can see, these phrases and questions are more open and tend to connect first and then offer help or ask the question. This way, the person feels more cared for than just being scrutinized.

What happens if the person still doesn’t want to talk or denies their problem?

Sometimes people don’t want to talk.

Make sure that you understand and accept that, because, remember it’s not about you but about that person’s needs.
So, make sure, when you’re trying to get someone to talk to you, that you genuinely care. Confirm why you’re asking and that it’s not about you feeling helpful instead of helping.

Finally, let them know that you’re there when they’re ready and focus on being present and staying in touch. That way, the person is more likely to understand that their happiness matters to you.
That’s my best advice for you if you’re trying to get a friend in pain to talk to you. I hope they’re helpful!

If it’s you who need someone to talk to and don’t know how you may find this guide from Verywell helpful:

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