7 Ways To Support Friends Right Now, Even When You Can't Be There Physically
In one way, shape, or form, we're all going through it right now as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Some have lost their jobs, while others are risking their lives as essential workers. Some families are grieving the loss of loved ones, and some are worrying about their loved ones' health.
Now more than ever, it's so important to lean on each other for support and comfort. But how can we best do that from the confines of our home, as we keep our physical distance? We spoke with licensed counselor and couples therapist Alicia Muñoz, LPC, who had seven tips for offering support, from how to open up the conversation to how best to listen. Here's what she's recommending right now:
1. Reach out any way you can.
Modern technology and social media get their fair share of mixed reviews, but there's no question many of us are grateful for our tech right about now. Thanks to phone calls, FaceTime, Zoom, and social media, it makes more sense to call it "physical" distancing rather than social.
Muñoz notes something as simple as telling a friend you miss them can go a long way. And don't be intimidated by the sometimes-awkward video chats—just 10 minutes can turn someone's whole day around. Once you've reached out, you can focus on opening up the conversation.
2. Open up the conversation in a sensitive way.
Certain words and phrases can help to approach a tough conversation in a sensitive way. Muñoz says these include, "'I've been thinking about you and wondering how you are,' 'I care about you and want to be here for you,' and 'Is there any special way I can support you right now that I might not be aware of?'" Even a simple, "How are you?" can be a sensitive way to open up a conversation if it's asked in a loving tone of voice, Muñoz notes.
The key, according to her, is understanding that if people are struggling, they may not immediately open up about their feelings, their needs, or their struggles, which brings us to our next point.
3. Model vulnerability.
"It's human to push away pain and negative experiences," Muñoz says, "and many people live with a hyper-independent mindset; feeling lonely, needing or wanting help, or longing for attention and connection can feel shameful."
With this in mind, being patient with your friends takes some of the pressure off them. Muñoz says you can offer a bit about your own struggle if they aren't opening up right away. "This can invite a friend who is isolated or guarded to share through your modeling of vulnerability," she explains.
4. Avoid changing the subject or offering unsolicited advice.
When a friend or family member is struggling, we can feel inclined to change the subject because we think it will help take their mind off things or even offer our take on what they can do—but Muñoz advises against this approach.
"Don't change the subject, and don't immediately try to fix it with concrete advice or solutions (unless your friend specifically asks). Listen to them: Staying quiet as they speak, taking in their words and experiences, putting yourself in their shoes, and letting yourself feel what it must be like to be them in whatever the situation."
5. Practice reflective listening.
And speaking of listening, Muñoz notes this is the time to practice reflective listening. "This means you focus your attention on your friend, letting go of your own thoughts, feelings, and preconceived notions as much as possible, and paraphrase some portion of what they're communicating."
For example: If your friend says, "I wish my mom didn't live so far away, I'm afraid she's going to get sick," you can zero in on what seems to be most emotionally important to your friend (rather than talking about your own mom, or pick-me-up advice). "You might say, 'It sounds like you wish you could be there for your mom to help her stay safe,'" Muñoz suggests.
6. Validate their struggle.
Another big part of effective and supportive listening, particularly when a friend is struggling, is offering validation. "So often, people judge and invalidate themselves internally and unconsciously," Muñoz explains. "Validation lets your friend know there's nothing fundamentally wrong with them or their experience, even if they're feeling fear, shame, confusion, or anger."
You can validate someone by using phrases like, "What you're saying totally makes sense because...," to help normalize their struggle and let them know their feelings are, well, valid.
7. Let them help you.
And last but not least, Muñoz says, "Sometimes the best way to show a friend support is to ask them to support you." This shows your friend you need them too and that you value and benefit from your relationship with them. "Notice within yourself what you might need from this friend." That could be advice, a check-in once a week, or even just some fun pictures of what they're up to periodically, to help stay in touch.
Yes, it's true this social distancing thing isn't easy. But that doesn't mean we can't still "be there" for our friends when they need us.
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