Friends and family in distress are all around us. From the workplace to the dining table to yoga class, we hear their stories. Their in-laws are driving them crazy. They have toxic co-workers and cope with bizarre office politics. Their stress is palpable.
And we want to hear about it. We want them to talk to us about it. Why do we do this? Is there something wrong with us? Not at all.
Wanting to talk with family or friends about their problems isn’t the same thing asschadenfreude, which translates from German as “harm-joy,” where we take actual pleasure from another’s misfortune.
There are healthier, kinder parts of us that want and even like to hear about the woes of those we care about. Why is that?
We feel closer when we share our difficulties. When my friend reveals that she is divorcing, I feel special. She chose me confide in. I tell her how terrible I felt during my divorce and that it’s now a distant memory. My assurances relieve her. I feel good about being supportive. Our bonds deepen in such intimate conversations.
We want to know we’re not alone. Misery indeed loves company, and when we know that our friend’s sister-in-law is an alcoholic, we feel better about our nosy, opinionated mother-in-law. Neither of us has a perfect family and we feel better about that.
We do it out of curiosity. Let’s face it. We’re intrigued when we learn how our friend caught her boyfriend cheating. It’s flat-out interesting. While we don’t wish misery on our friends, when it inevitably comes their way, we want to hear about it. It doesn’t make us bad people. It simply means we’re human.
But there are ways to have friend-in-need conversations that support others and strengthen our connections with them. Here are a few simple guidelines to help negotiate this tricky terrain.
1. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Recently, I was having dinner with a friend who is divorcing after a long-term marriage. I wondered how it was going, but I remembered how, when I was divorcing, I treasured those times when I could relax with a friend and not think about it. So I avoided any topic that might remind her.
It’s so tempting to bring up the juicy topic, but just don’t. We all need down time from our difficulties. We need to relax and enjoy our social encounters. Trust that your friend will talk to you about a problem when and if they are ready.
2. Don’t pour gasoline on the fire. “UGH–what a GIANT drag! What a waste of time that you have to deal with this.” I recently erased those words from a text I was about to send a professor friend who is dealing with a student she suspects of cheating on an exam. She’d asked me for advice. I answered her question and let it go at that. She knows it’s a drag and a waste of time. My reminding her serves no useful purpose. We can be authentically helpful and supportive without inflaming a situation.
3. Don’t mine the conversation for pain. If your friend tells you that her son has gone into rehab, don’t ask what drug he was addicted to or whether insurance is paying for his treatment. Trust that if your friend wants you to know, she will tell you. While human curiosity is normal and natural, there is a time and place for it. This isn’t one of them.
4. Keep it under your hat. Assume everything that a friend in need tells you is absolutely secret. Tell no one, even if you weren’t asked to. You may be tempted to tell your sister that your neighbor’s husband had an affair with the nanny and you might know for a certainty that your sister won’t breathe a word of it to anyone, but just don’t do it.
When we spread stories about our friends in need, we compromise our Integrity–that quality of choosing honesty, principled behavior, and walking our talk. The momentary pleasure of sharing juicy details of another’s life is not worth it. You won’t feel good about yourself in the long run, and you’re letting others know you can’t be trusted with their secrets.
5. Don’t offer advice or suggestions unless you’re asked. Telling your friend with a cheating spouse that you know the best divorce lawyer in town might do more harm than good. Your friend may be hoping for a reconciliation. Such uninvited solutions have the potential to increase a friend’s stress and anxiety and undermine their confidence.
6. Do support their feelings. Whether they’re angry, sad, worried, or anxious, people’s feelings are always valid. Statements like “I understand,” or “I get it,” are far more helpful and supportive than, “Don’t be so sad” or “You don’t have anything to worry about.”
When we affirm another’s feelings we show them that we’re listening and that we understand what they are going through, without adding to their woes. It helps us understand that our feelings are normal and that we’re not alone.
7. Do give the gift of presence. One of the greatest gifts we can offer another is our undivided attention. Put down your cell phone, stop multi-tasking, and really show up to listen. This simple yet powerful act is one of the most precious gifts we can offer a friend in need. Often just “holding space” like this is extraordinarily comforting and healing.
So the next time you’re talking with a friend or family member who has hit a rough patch, remember these simple guidelines. And when you’re the one in need, be sure to reach out and ask for exactly what will help you.
Life’s challenges don’t spare any of us. Having someone supportive accompany us on all or part of that journey can make a huge difference in how well we go through it. We are social creatures, and having friends-in-need when we’re troubled is powerful medicine.