When someone is struggling, we might be at a loss for how to help. We want to reach out. But we’re worried we’ll do or say the wrong thing. So we don’t do anything. Or maybe we have a track record of saying or doing the wrong things. Either way, the result is the same — we keep to ourselves.

Psychotherapist Lena Aburdene Derhally, MS, LPC, worked in oncology for years. She noted that the best way we can support someone who’s grieving is simply by being there.

The same is true for most things someone is struggling with — whether your friend is having marital problems, your cousin had a miscarriage or an acquaintance opens up about being overwhelmed.

Jennifer Kogan, LICSW, a psychotherapist in Washington, D.C., stressed the importance of listening with empathy. Empathy is key for meaningful relationships. And it’s a skill we can learn. Kogan cited the four attributes of empathy, identified by nursing scholar Teresa Wiseman. Researcher and bestselling author Brené Brown incorporated Wiseman’s definition in her own work. Brown writes about empathy in her book I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy and Power.

  • Seeing the world as others see it. According to Brown, “we must be willing to recognize and acknowledge our own lens and attempt to see the situation that someone is experiencing through her lens.”
  • Being non-judgmental. “Judging has become such a part of our thinking patterns that we are rarely even aware of why and how we do it,” Brown writes. However, judgment creates distance and disconnection, Kogan said. Non-judgment is a skill we can practice. It starts with ourselves. For instance, we can practice being non-judgmental by embracing ourselves when we make mistakes or don’t measure up to our expectations, Kogan said. We also can practice speaking to ourselves with compassion and realize that others are experiencing hard times like us, she said.
  • Understanding another’s feelings. In order to understand someone else’s feelings, we must be in touch with our own feelings, Brown writes. It’s important to have an understanding of emotions. But it’s also important to put aside our own “stuff,” or our own opinion when empathizing, Kogan said. Focus on what the person is feeling.
  • Communicating your understanding of their feelings. Brown shares this example in the book: Your friend tells you they feel like her marriage is falling apart. These kinds of responses don’t convey empathy: “Oh, no, you and Tim are a great couple — I’m sure everything will be fine,” or “At least you have a marriage. John and I haven’t had a real marriage for years.” This response does convey empathy: “I’m really sorry — that can be a very lonely place. Is there anything I can do?” Similarly, if your friend is going through a breakup, Derhally suggested listening and saying, “That sounds really hard. I’m sorry you’re in so much pain.” According to Brown, in general, “at least” isn’t empathetic. Here’s another example: “I had a miscarriage.” “At least you know you can get pregnant.”

These are other helpful and not-so helpful strategies for support.

Be curious about the right thing.

Psychologist Dan Griffin, Ph.D, was working with a family whose father was accused of a terrible crime. During a session one of the adult kids mentioned an Irish saying that goes something like this: If the person is just interested in the story, they’re not your friend. If they’re interested in you, they are. In other words, to be truly supportive, focus on how the person is doing. Don’t ask for the dirt or sordid details.

Think of what’s helped — and not helped — you.

Griffin suggested picking three situations where you needed help and received the right kind of help. What were the common supportive factors? Maybe the person was fully present and didn’t judge you. Maybe they referred you to a helpful resource. Maybe they brought you food or flowers. Maybe they sat with you while you processed your pain.

Also, consider what wasn’t so helpful. Maybe they turned the conversation toward themselves and their issues. Maybe they focused on fiddling with their phone or watching TV.

Of course, everyone is different. But thinking about what’s helped you and what hasn’t may be a good place to start, he said.

Avoid silver linings.

“A major don’t is to try to create silver linings or attempt to fix something with words,” Derhally said. She recalled that during her time working in oncology, it was really difficult for people to hear statements like “everything happens for a reason.” It’s not necessary to come up with “words of wisdom,” she said.

Avoid giving advice.

Unless you’re asked for it, avoid giving advice, Kogan said. When you give advice, you’re communicating what the other person should do instead of giving them the space to discuss how they feel, she said. “For this reason, advice giving often shuts down the conversation because the person does not feel heard.”

Check in regularly.

Let the person know that you’re thinking about them, and you’re available if they want to talk, Derhally said.

Again, the best thing you can do for someone who’s struggling with anything is listen. Give them your full attention. Put down the gadgets. As Griffin said, leaving your phone in another room is a small gesture with a profound meaning.

It’s easy to get caught up in wanting to say the right thing, especially if you’ve messed up before. But, as Kogan said, it’s perfectly OK to say: “I just don’t know what to say, but I am here for you.”

Helping hand photo available from Shutterstock