What Really Helps?

>> Sunday

It often helps a friend to listen to him talk when he's having troubles. But being the listener isn't easy, and as you know, not everything you say or do to help a person really helps. Brant Burleson, a researcher at Purdue University, set up some experiments to find out just what does work, and what doesn't. What he discovered may surprise you, because the most helpful things are the easiest things.

You don't have to offer advice. In fact, you probably shouldn't, according to Burleson's studies. When someone is unloading his troubles, most of the things we most naturally want to do to help him will not help him. For example, it doesn't help much to tell your friend about similar troubles you've had, or to try to help him look on the bright side, or to try to change the subject. What actually helps the listener is surprisingly simple and easy:

Encourage your friend to describe his trouble in great detail. And make sure you include, as part of that detail, descriptions of your friend's feelings.

That's it. Most people can pretty much figure out what they ought to do once they think about it a little bit, and that's exactly what you're allowing them to do: Think. By not giving your friend advice or trying to help her see the silver lining, by not cluttering her mind with your own similar experiences, and by getting her to describe her feelings and the problem in detail, you're allowing her to clarify the situation for herself.

It's easier to think by speaking aloud than it is to try to think to yourself, especially when you're upset, but that's true only if the listener is allowing you to speak freely.

Get your friend to describe his problem and his feelings in detail. Although it may seem you're hardly doing anything, you're allowing him to do what he needs most when times are tough: To confide in a friend.

Adam Khan is the author of See Her Smile and co-author with Klassy Evans of What Difference Does It Make?: How the Sexes Differ and What You Can Do About It.

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