Being a good friend is not just about having fun together. Sometimes, the people you know are going through unhappy or stressful times.
It is important to be available to listen and support someone who reaches out for help when he or she is stressed or experiencing bad times. How you respond will determine how comfortable your friend will feel in opening up and how helpful you are.
Most people consider themselves to be good listeners, but it may help to develop your abilities. It is important that your friend has your undivided attention. Consider your body language too. It should remain open, relaxed and neutral. Face your friend, maintain soft eye contact, and give the individual the space needed to speak without interruption.
Listen to what your friend is saying carefully and tune into relevant non verbal communication too. Immerse yourself in what is communicated; do not plan a response, or remember something similar that happened to you.
In using helping skills, you will need to respond from an internal frame of reference. This means that you are trying to see things from your friend’s point of view and not from that of your own.
Empathy is one of the qualities that should underpin helping skills, and responding from an internal frame of reference is a very good way of demonstrating it. Consider the following responses:
‘I understand exactly how you feel.’
‘That must have been so awful.’
‘The same happened to me last week when….’
‘I’ve been there! Let me tell you about it.’
‘I bet you were quite pleased to hear that.’
You probably noticed that, in all the responses, the speaker perceived what he or she had listened from a personal viewpoint, and commented accordingly, rather than listening to the experiences of the person being helped. These are not empathic responses.
To respond from an internal frame of reference, you will be involved in understanding others on their own terms. This incorporates choosing to listen carefully and to allow your friend the psychological space to tell the story (without your interpretation or ‘spin’ on what is said). Being a good friend does not have to include having all the answers, giving advice, fixing a situation and discounting or minimising a problem.
Empathy is the ability (according to the respected humanist psychologist Carl Rogers):
‘… to experience another person’s world as if it were one’s own, without losing the “as if”.’
Do not forget to let your friend know that you will follow up to see how things are going.