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What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Say

A close friend approaches you with a complicated problem that doesn’t have an easy solution. What do you do? If you simply express sympathy, you are not helping to solve the problem. If you try to give advice, it may seem like an attempt at a “quick fix” and appear as if you ‘ don’t understand the situation. You want to help, but you don’t want to intrude. What do you do?

You can help others arrive at their own solutions without being judgmental or intrusive by performing the following tasks:

  • Help sort out concerns. Clarify the problem. Prioritize concerns and needs.
  • Consider options. Identify what can be done. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of alternatives.
  • Develop a plan. Focus on the best possible course of action. Plan carefully.

Sorting out concerns:

Before you can begin to help others to solve problems, you must first allow them to explore their own thoughts and emotions. You can facilitate this process by asking open ended questions that begin with “What” or “How.” Ask direct questions that encourage another to talk about the specific problem.

Summarize what the person says to you and repeat it back in your own words. Hearing you voice those concerns will help your friend to look at the situation more objectively, and to gauge how well he/she is communicating true feelings.

Once you have identified all of the problems that your friend wishes to address and all of the emotions involved, you can begin to explore options.

Reviewing options:

To help your friend identify possible courses of action, use three questions:

1. What have you tried?
2. What have you thought about trying” and
3. As we talk, what other possibilities come to mind?

Now, have the individual describe the advantages and disadvantages of each one. As the guide, be sure to get the person to look at the pros and cons. of each option.

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Developing a plan:

Once your friend has decided on the best option, it is time to develop a plan. A good plan is negotiated together, focused in the present, specific and realistic.

After settling on a practical strategy, wrap up the problem solving process by having the person describe the plan. Be sure to seek clarification of any uncertainties or misunderstandings that come to light during the person’s summary.

The real help is in ‘being there’

Always end the discussion by expressing interest in how things progress. This gives the person added motivation to follow through with the plan. Stay involved.

Being a guide gives you the ability to respond effectively to others in decision making situations, even when you have no answers of your own. This step-by-step process can help you and the people you care about make important decisions seem more manageable.

What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Say

Jane Framingham, Ph.D.

APA Reference
Framingham, J. (2020). What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Say. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 30 Jul 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 30 Jul 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.