There is a lot of fear and uncertainty for many people around what to say in a supportive conversation. This focus on having the right words sometimes makes us freeze and stops people from checking-in with friends and family at all. Really, the power isn’t in what you say… it’s in what you do. The most impactful pieces of these conversations are checking in, actively listening without judgement, and genuinely caring. Everything else is extra!
Remember, this is a skill that needs practice. Expect that it may be awkward or messy in the beginning. That’s okay! It takes practice, but it is essential work. The important thing is that the conversation is happening.
If you are still searching for the words to say once the conversation has begun, here are some guidelines:
It isn’t easy to open up and be vulnerable about something going on in your life. Simply saying, ‘It sounds like you’re going through something really hard. Thank you for sharing this with me.' can go a long way to building trust and creating a safe space for them to open up.
Sharing your own experience can be very powerful. It normalizes and creates the space for others to begin being vulnerable too. Where comfortable and your experience overlaps, share your story in a way that keeps the focus on them. Saying something like, ‘When I found myself in a similar situation, talking to a counsellor was really helpful.’ can be very helpful. The realization that you had a similar experience and that you found help allows them to think about both in a different way.
The point of sharing is not to belittle their experience or to tell them that you understand what they are going through. It’s not to one-up them. Everyone’s experience is different. Sharing your experience is to build connection and normalize what they are going through. If you don’t have a similar experience, that’s okay! Try to understand what they are going through. Some things you can say are – ‘Tell me more about how you are feeling.’ or ‘Help me understand what you’re feeling right now’.. Mutual vulnerability can really open the doors to combating stigma.
Your intention for this conversation is to allow the person you’re supporting the opportunity to talk through what they’re experiencing. Focus on asking gentle, probing, open-ended questions that prompt them to continue exploring their feelings – ‘That must have been very difficult. How are you feeling about it?’.
The focus of this conversation for you is not what you say, it is how they feel afterward. You are not providing therapy. You are not expected to ‘fix them’. Your role is to convey your genuine compassion, listen, and let them know you are there for them. Speak in a natural tone of voice. Let your body communicate what you’re there for – hold eye contact, put a hand on their back, hold their hand, lead in because you’re interested. Turn off your phone and put it away. And where appropriate, laughter is liberating. Don’t focus on trying to make it better – focus on making a genuine human connection.