Listening seems like a very simple concept, but a surprisingly few number of people actually do it well. In fact, many adults make awful listeners, and not every personality type is cut out to be a splendid sympathizer.
The more difficult thing to consider is that every person likes to be comforted in a different way. Regardless, here are some general things to keep in mind for how to act when dealing with an upset friend (or child, etc.):
- Reassure them that everything will be okay and that it will all work out. I strongly believe this is always true, and it’s comforting to be reminded when things feel bleak.
- Welcome the tears. Even if the person you’re dealing with doesn’t usually like to cry, make sure they know that the option is there.
- Let them vent openly and honestly.
- Give suggestions. Talk things through.
- Give your full attention. Make eye contact. Don’t check your phone. Look at them like they’re all that matters.
- Give compliments and reassurance, especially regarding their own self worth. (I.e. “you’re very smart and capable,” “you’re very strong and I know you can get through”, etc.)
- Physical comfort (i.e. hugs). Hugs work wonders, especially long ones.
- Be sympathetic and understanding to the best of your ability. Cut them slack. Try to step in their shoes. Acknowledge their feelings. Even if you may inwardly disagree with some of their opinions.
- Judge. At all. People say things they don’t mean when they’re upset and their judgement can be unreasonable. They also reveal deeper (and sometimes darker) parts of themselves. Don’t hold it against them.
- Contradict. They will exaggerate and dramatize; that’s normal. It’s okay to point out positives, but do so lightly, in a way that does not undermine their problem(s).
- Change the topic. Most people want the focus to be on them when they’re upset. There are some exceptions, but generally, do not talk about yourself (except when relating). Don’t bring up your problems when someone else is venting (i.e. “I had such a bad day.” “Oh, my day was awful too!”)
- Tell them to stop crying.
- Deny their feelings. We do this more often than we recognize. If they say, “I don’t feel like going out,” don’t say, “yes, you do, it’ll make you better.” Acknowledge what they want. It’s often enough to just hear “I understand, and I sympathize.”
- Make them feel that their distress is trivial compared to others. (“I think that if I ever have kids, and they are upset, I won’t tell them that people are starving in China or anything like that because it wouldn’t change the fact that they were upset. And even if somebody else has it much worse, that doesn’t really change the fact that you have what you have.” -Stephen Chbosky, Perks of Being a Wallflower)
- Point out the negatives (even if they’re logical).
An occasional pity party is called for sometimes. We all need to feel mollycoddled when distressed. Let them get it out; this is not the time to be logical and short. Contribute what you can, and give them your full attention.