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Most students have had a friend who’s struggling through a rough patch. Wanting to help the person feel better, many try to offer a quick solution to the problem.

When asked to describe their style when helping a friend, nearly 80 percent of the respondents to a recent Student Health 101 survey said they suggest ideas or give advice. Although the intention behind this approach is admirable, sometimes offering your ears is the best problem-solving strategy.

Why Listening Helps

This might seem counterintuitive: Listening without an agenda, not trying to fix the problem, and not aiming to make someone “feel better” will often actually help the person feel a whole lot better! Jasmine C., a sophomore at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, shares, “Getting the problem off your chest, even though it’s still yours, is helpful. Listening is key.”

Dr. Mary Westfall, reverend of the Durham Community Church in New Hampshire, explains that genuine listening allows people to find their inner, wise voice. “Deep listening creates self-understanding,” she says. Albert R., a senior at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, agrees. He says, “Often the best solutions come from self-reflection. Listening can help the person guide him- or herself to a solution.”

Kayla T., a senior at the University of Florida in Gainesville, says, “As I talk, I vent. Just talking helps me to work through the problem. I can hear what I’m saying and having support is enough to get me through.”

Listen Without Judgment

Listening carefully and without judgment allows the person you’re helping to be honest about his or her feelings—with you and with him-or herself.

Stay focused on the moment, resisting the urge to jump in and talk about your similar experience or offer a solution.
Paul F., a graduate student at Sul Ross State University Rio Grande College in Uvalde, Texas, says, “In the past, I was quick to give advice. But I’ve learned that it’s not what people want. They need someone to listen and empathize.”

Zach G., a senior at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio, concurs. “Most of the time, all people want is someone to listen. A lot of people try too hard to help by giving advice,” he notes.

Here are seven listening tips:

  • Relax. Quiet the part of your brain that’s analyzing and think of yourself as a receptacle for your friend’s words.
  • Find out what your friend needs. You can specifically ask if he or she wants you to listen, help problem-solve, suggest resources, or something else.
  • Stay in the moment. If you find your mind drifting or racing to develop solutions, bring yourself back.
  • Avoid turning the focus on yourself. Check “I” and “me” statements at the door.
  • Ask for elaboration. Open-ended questions can help your friend home in on the specifics of the situation and come up with his or her own ideas for a solution.
  • Offer observations carefully. Try saying, “It sounds like you’re feeling…”
  • Wait to share your opinion. Even if it’s requested, keep any suggestions open-ended. Use phrases like, “You could try” instead of “You should.”

If you’re used to developing solutions, providing support through simply listening may feel strange at first. That’s okay. It might help to think of times when someone listened to you or to identify someone whom you believe is a good listener. What does this person do that’s helpful? What does he or she say? How does his or her nonverbal communication demonstrate careful listening?

Take Care of Yourself

Feeling overwhelmed by a friend’s problem, or responsible for fixing it, can be stressful. You can be a resource and support for your friend, but you also need to take care of yourself.

Jeanne Haley, a counselor at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, says, “When a friend is in distress [it’s natural to want] to relieve or alleviate his or her pain. We don’t want to be in pain either, and we are when a friend’s struggling or suffering. It’s like a grief reaction.”

It’s important to realize that in order to support your friend, you need to have boundaries and continue to take care of your own well-being. One way to do this is to be clear about how you’re able to help. At the same time, make sure your friend connects with other campus or community resources, like your school’s counseling or health center.

Don’t forget that you can use these services, too. “The ability to [manage] your own sadness is a very effective way of helping a friend,” says Haley.

Most people want to feel understood. With practice, you’ll be able to be a supportive friend and also take care of yourself in the process.

Take Action:

  • Listen carefully, without judgment.
  • Realize that you don’t have to fix your friend’s problem.
  • Relax while you’re listening and focus on your friend’s feelings.
  • Help your friend access campus and community resources.
  • Acknowledge feelings that come up for you while supporting your friend.

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