The more you engage in emailing, instant messaging, chat rooms, and discussion boards, the more likely it becomes that you will find yourself trying to help someone with a specific, perhaps difficult issue. It's important to maintain certain personal boundaries to prevent overwhelming yourself--especially if you are also trying to tackle your own problems.
Don't feel that you have to say a lot, or have any answers. By listening you are already giving the other more than they had before. Many people are not looking for advice at all, but to be heard. Give yourself permission to say "I really don't know about this, but I'll listen."
Try not to minimize what the other person is going through. Remarks such as "just get over it already," or "suck it up and go on" are not particularly helpful. Try to remember that what you might mean in jest might be taken seriously by someone who is upset.
It's good to empathize, but don't take personally whatever the other person might say. What they are saying isn't about you, it's about them. Nothing they say changes or threatens who you are. Only you own your responses and your feelings about them.
Don't read anything into what another shares. Even when something might sound unbelievable, approach it from the point of view that they are saying it for a reason, and they probably believe it.
Sometimes someone continues to say the same thing over and over from one board, or chat, to another. It's easy to become frustrated, or even angry, assuming they have not read or listened to any "advice" you have given. If you have some knowledge of the person, that can work with or against your efforts to help them. Remember what you are doing -- listening -- is their main need. It's a worthy goal to try to be supportive of everyone, but sometimes it doesn't seem possible. It's best on those occasions to remain quiet and keep your own issues out of the other person's thoughts and statements. Remember that each person is an individual. Even if he or she sounds "just like Uncle Jerry," he or she is not Uncle Jerry and should not be treated the same way you would treat your relative.
It helps to practice active listening. Repeat back to the person what you think he or she said, so that you can be sure you understood correctly.
It's also good to remember that once you say something in writing, it has a life of its own. You can never take it completely back. Using the carpenter's rule (measure twice, cut once) might be an appropriate guideline: Think twice, type once.
Monitoring ourselves for own reactions when we are helping others, and adjusting accordingly, helps us remain emotionally healthy and able to continue to assist others. The following links will take you to excellent resources for further study.
Related Reading from Psychological Self-Help
- Listening and Empathy
- Persuasion and Winning Cooperation
- Straight Thinking, Common Sense, and Good Arguments
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 2 Mar 2006
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.
A neurotic is a man who builds a castle in the sky. A psychotic is the man who lives in it. A psychiatrist is the man who charges them both rent.
-- Jerome Lawrence