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What to Do When Your Friend Tells You That They’re Sad

What to Do When Your Friend Tells You That They’re Sad

Knowing what to say when a friend shares sad news with you is one of the most challenging things in a friendship. You may not know what to do no matter how close you are with this friend.

When someone you care about is hurting, it’s natural to want them to feel better. If you’ve never experienced what they’re going through, you may feel unsure about the best way to help them. Even when you do understand their situation, you may realize that the challenge your friend faces is really difficult to overcome.

If they’ve just lost a loved one, or someone close to them has fallen ill, it can be hard to find the words that offer them comfort. Difficulties at work or the end of a relationship can also leave you wondering how to cheer up your heartbroken friend. There isn’t one way to address a person in a state of grief or frustration, but you can develop some best practices for handling bad news.

Your Good Intentions Can Make Your Friend Feel Worse

When we’re oblivious about the best way to handle a situation, we respond to our sad friends in an inappropriate way. Maybe we say the wrong thing, or we’re unintentionally insensitive to their feelings. Either way, an inappropriate response can leave your friend feeling sadder than before you talked.

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Most of us don’t go out of our way to hurt others. Even the best intentions can go awry. When we don’t know what to say, we’ll grasp at straws and try whatever comes to mind in order to soothe their discomfort. We’ve all done this, and most of us have had someone with good intentions make us feel worse. We want to help our friends feel better so we can’t help but do one or some of these things:

Changing the subject doesn’t help.

When conversation shifts toward challenges, you might think that changing the subject will help. In your mind, it’s a chance for your friend to move their attention away from their negative situation to something they enjoy. Changing the subject to something trivial and unrelated may feel good to you, but it won’t help them. They couldn’t care less about which movies are in theaters now, or how much you like the new restaurant in town.

This method is problematic because your friend needs and wants to be heard. They shared their troubles with you because giving voice to their pain can lessen it. If you change the subject, you deprive them of the chance to do this. They end up feeling invalidated and rejected.

Giving positive reassurance makes them more negative.

When your friend comes to you with troubles, it can be tempting to say things like, “Everything will be okay,” or “You’re good enough.” You might believe what you’re saying, and it’s coming from a good place, but sometimes that’s not what people need.

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Your friend may just need to vent. They need to give their troubles some air time so that they can move on. Your attempts to be reassuring can come off as dismissive. Let them speak. Acknowledging that something is bad can actually motivate them to look for rational ways to cope.

Trying to “fix” the problem only worsens it.

When you care about someone, it’s difficult to watch them suffer. You might want to offer suggestions to help your friend get to the root of the problem.

“If I were you, I’d…” and, “It’s better to…” are only going to fix so much. Just like changing the subject and offering positive reassurance, this strategy robs your friend of the validation and understanding that they need. It seems like the more you care for them, the worse this habit becomes.

Offering unsolicited input about how you would do things won’t make them feel better, and being a fixer can be exhausting for you.[1] When your friend asks for advice, they’re inviting you to offer input. Otherwise, avoid telling them what they should do.

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Listen to Understand and Validate Your Friend’s Feelings

Above all, your friend wants to be heard. Give them the gift of listening patiently and authentically. Withhold your judgements, forget about planning what you want to say next, and hold space for them. But don’t just silently listening. What you should do is to practice active listening which involves the following steps:

1. Give them your reassurance with physical contact.

Sitting silently won’t make your friend feel heard or validated. Stay engaged in what they’re saying, and offer body language that indicates that you hear them. Nodding your head and making eye contact will help them feel safe and will encourage them to let it out.

2. Speak without fixing.

You don’t have to nod mutely, but be sure that your contributions to the conversation keep the focus on them. When you say things like, “I hear you,” or “I know I can’t feel exactly how you feel, but I understand it’s hard for you,” you offer them the validation that they crave.

If you want to find out more about validating another person’s feelings, read my other article Why Your Lover Doesn’t Want Your Advice, but Your Validation

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3. Let them know you have tried to understand.

If you simply repeat what they just told you without synthesizing the information, you’re parroting the problem back to them. Demonstrate that you have been thinking about what they’ve been saying by putting the situation into your own words. For example, “It doesn’t seem reasonable that you have to take on extra duties when you already have so much to do,” sounds a lot more reassuring than, “You work too much.”

To learn more about active listening, tale a look at The Skill That Most People Don’t Have: Active Listening

All They Need Is a Listening Ear, Nothing Else

Knowing what to say and how to say it can be challenging. But if your friend is coming to you with their problems, it means that they trust you. Consider their confidence in you a gift, and do your best to hold space for them as they work through whatever is happening in their lives.

Above all, be an active listener and work to validate their feelings. Resist the urge to fix things, change the subject, or smother them with platitudes. A kind listening ear may be all that your friend needs to get through a difficult time. Truly hear them, and you’ll be amazed at the results. When life throws you a curve-ball, they’ll do the same for you.

Featured photo credit: Corinne Kutz on Unsplash via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Psychology Today: You can’t fix everything

More by this author

Anna Chui

Anna is a communication expert and a life enthusiast. She's the editor of Lifehack and loves to write about love, life, and passion.

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Last Updated on October 30, 2019

How the Stages of Change Model Helps You Change Your Habits

How the Stages of Change Model Helps You Change Your Habits

Change is tough, there’s no doubt about it. Old habits are hard to shift, and adopting a new lifestyle can feel like an uphill battle!

In this article, you will learn about a simple yet powerful model:

Stages of change model, that explains the science behind personal transformation.

You’ll discover how and why some changes stick whereas others don’t last, and how long it takes to build new habits.

What is the Stages of Change Model?

Developed by researchers J.O. Prochaska and Carlo C. DiClemente over 30 years ago[1] and outlined in their book Changing For Good, the Stages of Change Model, also known as the Transtheoretical Model, was formed as a result of the authors’ research with smokers.

Prochaska and DiClemente were originally interested in the question of why some smokers were able to quit on their own, whereas others required professional help. Their key conclusion was that smokers (or anyone else with a bad habit) quits only when they are ready to do so.

Here’s an illustration done by cartoonist and illustrator Simon Kneebone about the different stages a smoker experiences when they try to quit smoking:

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    The Stages of Change Model looks at how these conscious decisions are made. It emphasizes that change isn’t easy. People can spend a long time stuck in a stage, and some may never reach their goals.[2]

    The model has been applied in the treatment of smoking, alcoholism, and drugs. It is also a useful way of thinking about any bad habit. Social workers, therapists, and psychologists draw on the model to understand their patients’ behaviors, and to explain the change process to the patients themselves.

    The key advantages to the model is that it is simple to understand, is backed by extensive research, and can be applied in many situations.

    The Stages of Change Model is a well-established psychological model that outlines six stages of personal change:

    1. Precontemplation
    2. Contemplation
    3. Determination
    4. Action
    5. Maintenance
    6. Termination

    How are these stages relevant to changing habits?

    To help you visualize the stages of change and how each progresses to the next one, please take a look at this wheel:[3]

      Let’s look at the six stages of change,[4] together with an example that will show you how the model works in practice:

      Stage 1: Precontemplation

      At this stage, an individual does not plan to make any positive changes in the next six months. This may because they are in denial about their problem, feel too overwhelmed to deal with it, or are too discouraged after multiple failed attempts to change.

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      For example, someone may be aware that they need to start exercising, but cannot find the motivation to do so. They might keep thinking about the last time they tried (and failed) to work out regularly. Only when they start to realize the advantages of making a change will they progress to the next stage.

      Stage 2: Contemplation

      At this stage, the individual starts to consider the advantages of changing. They start to acknowledge that altering their habits would probably benefit them, but they spend a lot of time thinking about the downside of doing so. This stage can last for a long time – possibly a year or more.

      You can think of this as the procrastinating stage. For example, an individual begins to seriously consider the benefits of regular exercise, but feels resistant when they think about the time and effort involved. When the person starts putting together a concrete plan for change, they move to the next stage.

      The key to moving from this stage to the next is the transformation of an abstract idea to a belief (e.g. from “Exercise is a good, sensible thing to do” to “I personally value exercise and need to do it.)[5]

      Stage 3: Preparation

      At this point, the person starts to put a plan in place. This stage is brief, lasting a few weeks. For example, they may book a session with a personal trainer and enrol on a nutrition course.

      Someone who drinks to excess may make an appointment with a drug and alcohol counsellor; someone with a tendency to overwork themselves might start planning ways to devise a more realistic schedule.

      Stage 4: Action

      When they have decided on a plan, the individual must then put it into action. This stage typically lasts for several months. In our example, the person would begin attending the gym regularly and overhauling their diet.

      Stage 4 is the stage at which the person’s desire for change becomes noticeable to family and friends. However, in truth, the change process began a long time ago. If someone you know seems to have suddenly changed their habits, it’s probably not so sudden after all! They will have progressed through Stages 1-3 first – you probably just didn’t know about it.

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      Stage 5: Maintenance

      After a few months in the Action stage, the individual will start to think about how they can maintain their changes, and make lifestyle adjustments accordingly. For instance, someone who has adopted the habit of regular workouts and a better diet will be vigilant against old triggers (such as eating junk food during a stressful time at work) and make a conscious decision to protect their new habits.

      Unless someone actively engages with Stage 5, their new habits are liable to come unstuck. Someone who has stuck to their new habits for many months – perhaps a year or longer – may enter Stage 6.

      Maintenance can be challenging because it entails coming up with a new set of habits to lock change in place. For instance, someone who is maintaining their new gym-going habit may have to start improving their budgeting skills in order to continue to afford their gym membership.

      Stage 6: Termination

      Not many people reach this stage, which is characterized by a complete commitment to the new habit and a certainty that they will never go back to their old ways. For example, someone may find it hard to imagine giving up their gym routine, and feel ill at the thought of eating junk food on a regular basis.

      However, for the majority of people, it’s normal to stay in the Maintenance period indefinitely. This is because it takes a long time for a new habit to become so automatic and natural that it sticks forever, with little effort. To use another example, an ex-smoker will often find it hard to resist the temptation to have “just one” cigarette even a year or so after quitting. It can take years for them to truly reach the Termination stage, at which point they are no more likely to smoke than a lifelong non-smoker.

      How long does each stage take?

      You should be aware that some people remain in the same stage for months or even years at a time. Understanding this model will help you be more patient with yourself when making a change. If you try to force yourself to jump from Contemplation to Maintenance, you’ll just end up frustrated. On the other hand, if you take a moment to assess where you are in the change process, you can adapt your approach.

      So if you need to make changes quickly and you are finding it hard to progress to the next stage, it’s probably time to get some professional help or adopt a new approach to forming habits.

      The limitations of this model

      The model is best applied when you decide in advance precisely what you want to achieve, and know exactly how you will measure it (e.g. number of times per week you go to the gym, or number of cigarettes smoked per day). Although the model has proven useful for many people, it does have limitations.

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      Require the ability to set a realistic goal

      For a start, there are no surefire ways of assessing whereabouts in the process you are – you just have to be honest with yourself and use your own judgement. Second, it assumes that you are physically capable of making a change, whereas in fact you might either need to adjust your goals or seek professional help.

      If your goal isn’t realistic, it doesn’t matter whether you follow the stages – you still won’t get results. You need to decide for yourself whether your aims are reasonable.[6]

      Difficult to judge your progress

      The model also assumes that you are able to objectively measure your own successes and failures, which may not always be the case.[7] For instance, let’s suppose that you are trying to get into the habit of counting calories as part of your weight-loss efforts. However, even though you may think that you are recording your intake properly, you might be over or under-estimating.

      Research shows that most people think they are getting enough exercise and eating well, but in actual fact aren’t as healthy as they believe. The model doesn’t take this possibility into account, meaning that you could believe yourself to be in the Action stage yet aren’t seeing results. Therefore, if you are serious about making changes, it may be best to get some expert advice so that you can be sure the changes you are making really will make a positive difference.

      Conclusion

      The Stages Of Change Model can be a wonderful way to understand change in both yourself and others.

      While there’re some limitations in it, the Stages of Change Model helps to visualize how you go through changes so you know what to expect when you’re trying to change a habit or make some great changes in life.

      Start by identifying one of your bad habits. Where are you in the process? What could you do next to move forwards?

      Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

      Reference

      [1] Psych Central: Stages Of Change
      [2] Boston University School Of Public Health: The Transtheoretical Model (Stages Of Change)
      [3] Empowering Change: Stages of Change
      [4] Boston University School Of Public Health: The Transtheoretical Model (Stages Of Change)
      [5] Psychology Today: 5 Steps To Changing Any Behavior
      [6] The Transtheoretical Model: Limitations Of The Transtheoretical Model
      [7] Health Education Research: Transtheoretical Model & Stages Of Change: A Critique

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