It isn’t always possible to plan your conversation, but when you do, it can help you feel more comfortable and confident. Supportive conversations don’t always go the way you hoped. The person you’re trying to support may not be ready to have the conversation, may not feel comfortable enough to open up to you, or may have a reaction that you weren’t expecting. In getting ready for tough conversations, it is important to be clear on your goals, expectation, and boundaries. Taking the time to be clear about these pieces allows you to prepare yourself to step comfortably into the unknown. It is also important to choose a good time and place that is private – maybe when you are doing something the two of you like to do together, like going for a walk, a drive, or playing a game together.
Get clear on what you want to say or do and why. Many people make the mistake of believing or hoping they can solve another person’s problems. While you can help, solving the problem isn’t up to you. Even with our best intentions, other people’s actions and thoughts are not ours to control. Working through issues can only be done by the person with the issue. Be prepared that there may be no solution at the end.
Don’t worry! Just because you can’t solve everything doesn’t mean you can’t help. Your goal here is to provide emotional support, which is more valuable than you might expect. Simply recognizing something is wrong, asking if they’re doing alright, and listening compassionately can be life-changing.
It is important to keep your expectations in check. We don’t know what is going to happen when we start a conversation. It is important to understand that we are all human beings having a unique human experience. What you hope or want to happen is not always likely to happen. Part of being a support in someone’s life is understanding that you are not responsible for other people’s happiness, but that being there for them in a supportive way makes a big difference. They may still be sad after you talk, but people can be sad and okay at the same time. Your support is valuable!
When someone we care about is going through something, we sometimes feel the obligation to give as much of ourselves as it takes to help them feel better. But it is important that we take care of ourselves when helping others. Setting boundaries isn’t selfish. If set properly, it can strengthen the conversation because both people understand what they can say and do. Understanding and respecting the boundaries of the person you’re supporting is equally important.
Clearly state what you can and cannot do when necessary. Some examples of boundaries are ending an interaction if the person you’re supporting begins to get aggressive, if you notice your anxiety rising, or if they’re asking too much of you. Boundaries are different for each person and can change as the conversation evolves. It is important that you define your own. Protecting yourself is important. Start by asking yourself what is okay and what is not.
Be prepared to communicate your boundaries when they're pushed. If you decide not to be a part of the situation, consider what you can do or how you can help while maintaining your boundaries. Here are some things you can say:
If you have the opportunity, it can be helpful to suggest a resource such as those in our Resource Section. It is also helpful to suggest they talk to someone who may be better equipped to have this conversation, like a friend, family member, or doctor. If they are at risk of harm to themselves, it is important to stay with them, keep them safe, and get help immediately.
You don’t always have to express what you’ve decided you can do and why and what you hope will happen, but it is important to know what they are going into the conversation. It is important to honour the boundaries you’ve set if you encounter something that pushes those boundaries.