How to show up for a friend without trying to fix their problems, according to a therapist
When a friend comes to you with a problem, it can be tempting to give your two cents. While you might see the solution as clear as day, your friend may not want to hear your unfiltered opinion—sometimes they just want you to listen instead. Unfortunately, it can be tough for people to shed this habit, especially if fixing other peoples’ problems might be part of their M.O.
“For those who are help-oriented at heart, giving assistance to others is a natural reaction. Being helpful and nurturing are both primitive responses that are geared toward survival of the species. In more ancient times, we knew that our own survival often depended on having others to share in responsibilities and help protect children,” Dr. Carla Marie Manly, clinical psychologist and author of Joy from Fear, tells HelloGiggles. “In general, men tend to be ‘fixers’ whereas women tend to be caregivers and nurturers. In many people, though, these instincts remain strong and become important values.”
According to Dr. Manly, it’s more important to offer support than to fix every issue a friend presents to you.
“Some people don’t want their issues fixed by others and will genuinely prefer kind support in the way of listening, sharing time, etc.,” she says.
Some people might want their loved ones to provide solutions, but it might not be as beneficial for them as you think. “Fixing other peoples’ problems tends to be ineffective in the long run in that the problem at hand might be fixed while the underlying issues that led to the problem are not addressed.”
So how exactly can you provide support to a friend without offering unsolicited advice? Read on for seven ways you can be there without trying to magically solve all their problems.
1. Listen and mirror their actions.
First, you want to provide an ear anytime your friend approaches you with a problem when you have the bandwidth to listen. Rather than telling them what they should do to fix their issue, listen and mirror their actions so they can feel heard and supported.
“Listening carefully and attentively is one of the best ways to show up emotionally for a friend,” says Dr. Manly. “A communication tool known as ‘mirroring’ or ‘reflective listening’ is very helpful in reducing ‘fixing’ tendencies while also showing attentive, compassionate listening.”
According to The Wall Street Journal, mirroring is a nonverbal—and sometimes subconscious—way to communicate with others to create a deeper bond. So the next time you’re thinking of giving unsolicited advice, opt to mimic their gestures, body language, and tone for a more comforting effect.
2. Validate their emotions.
At the end of the day, most people just want to feel like their emotions are valid. According to Psychology Today, one of the easiest ways to confirm your friends’ feelings is by simply telling them you think they’re right in feeling that way (if you truly believe it). This can eliminate their confusion and make them feel supported and understood during a chaotic moment in their life.
3. Partake in activities they’re interested in.
While words of advice might not be able to comfort your friend in the way you’d like them to, it might be better to find a way to physically be there for them instead.
“Whether it’s going [on] a long walk, a hike, going to a movie, or sharing an evening of cooking together, the connection and comfort that arises from time together can be incredibly cathartic and supportive,” says Dr. Manly.
4. Inquire about their needs and wants.
Instead of assuming how your bestie wants to be supported, ask them what they may need or want to feel better. You can offer a helping hand by asking, “How can I help?” or “What can I do to make you feel better at this moment?” These questions allow your friend to examine their feelings introspectively, which can not only make you aware of their needs but can provide them with a clear answer about how they can solve their own issue.
5. Create a collage of emotions with them.
Many of us create mood boards when we’re dreaming up our ideal lives—so why shouldn’t we do the same for solving big issues? The slow-paced activity can allow both of you to connect and possibly view the issue from a different angle.
“Creating a collage of feelings and ideas is a wonderful, connective activity to share with a friend. There is incredible cathartic energy to be found by cutting out magazine pictures and words and pasting them on a poster board,” says Dr. Manly. “As friends share the meaning of the finished products, a great deal of understanding, connection, and compassionate energy can arise.”
6. Ask if they would like your opinion before you give it.
Say your friend discusses an issue with you and you have actively listened and validated their feelings but still feel inclined to offer advice. Remember not to say anything without asking them if they want to hear it first.
“The best time to offer help to someone is when you notice they are struggling or when they ask for support—whichever comes first. Helping someone does not mean that you need to fix their situation,” says Dr. Manly. “Indeed, sometimes the best form of help is to offer support and gentle guidance that encourages the growth of personal insight, awareness, and problem-solving skills.”
7. Offer professional help.
Depending on your friend and their issue, you may want to consider asking if they’re open to talking to a therapist to help with their problem. While you can physically and emotionally be there for your friend, you may not be the best person to help with their situation at this time.
“When a friend has significant challenges, it can be very helpful to offer concrete tools such as the name and address of therapists, support groups, or other mental health services,” says Dr. Manly. “Offering to accompany the friend to an initial session is also a wonderful way to show support.”
Just be mindful of how you bring it up. The last thing you want is for your friend to become defensive about their situation. Approach them with kindness, and if you see a professional, maybe even discuss how your therapist has helped you. In the end, it’s your friend’s decision on how they would like to move forward. Use your best judgment and remember: It’s not your job to have the right answer.