Human beings are social animals who need a community to survive and thrive. Years of research has shown we are wired to connect with and rely on others, especially when going through a tough time. That’s why the urge to be there for someone comes naturally to us.
Whether it’s a breakup or losing a job, we want to show up and be there for a friend when they need it the most. But knowing how to be there for someone isn’t as easy as it may seem, despite our instincts.
What does being there for a friend mean?
Being there for someone means offering more than just your physical presence or advice. It’s a state of emotional availability, an opportunity to truly connect with a friend who needs love and support to get through a difficult time.
However, this doesn’t mean you play their therapist. Being there for a friend doesn’t mean you have to counsel, advise or “treat” them.
How to be there for someone
Being there for a friend comes in all shapes and sizes, depending on how long you have known each other, the quality of relationship you share and the kind of difficulty they’re facing.
There’s no one-size-fits-all advice. What works for one person may be the worst advice for another, so let these suggestions be a starting point. Try them out to see what helps, but eventually, find your own unique ways to be there for someone in need.
Here are some ways you can be there for someone in a way that actually makes a difference.
Discern when a friend needs help
Not every friend will explicitly tell you they are struggling. Sometimes you have to understand they’re going through a tough time and it’s on you to step up in a supportive role, said Marisa G. Franco, a psychologist and friendship expert.
Often it’ll be obvious they’re going through something difficult. If they just had a breakup or a miscarriage, it’s clear they need you to be there for them. But sometimes it can be subtle. Maybe something unexpected triggered an old pain. You might not know what happened, but you can observe your interactions and see if your friend is acting differently.
If you absolutely can’t figure it out, you can simply ask if they need some support right now.
One of the most obvious ways you can be there for someone is by reaching out. It could be sending a quick text, making a call or showing up at their house (with permission, please). You reaching out proactively can be extremely supportive for someone who struggles to ask for help.
You don’t even have to spend a lot of time with them for this to be effective. A simple check-in once a day can go a long way if you’re crunched for time.
Reach out even when things seem good
It’s common to reach out when things are going wrong, but you can take it a step further and check in with your friend even when things seem good on the outside.
Don’t wait for them to be in trouble. Show up even when everything is alright. Check in with them regularly and keep in touch. Knowing someone cares and is available can help avoid the downward spiral.
Offer to help
It can be confusing to know exactly what your friend needs during a tough time, but don’t let that be an excuse to sit back and wait for them to tell you what to do.
When someone is in crisis mode, they probably won’t have the mental capacity to think about what they need and actively ask for it. So, if you want to be there for someone, you can play this role.
“Think about support as something you offer actively rather than passively waiting for the person in need to tell you what they want,” said Franco. “When you know your friend is in a time of need, reach out and ask, ‘Hey, would this be helpful?’”
Visit them with soup, order food, get them medicine or anything else they need but don’t have the energy to get, Franco recommended.
Practice active listening
Listening seems like the most obvious and easiest thing to do, but many of us get it wrong.
When you are trying to be there for a friend, make sure you’re giving them your undivided attention and practice listening actively.
“Listen without planning what you want to say,” said Adam Jablin, a certified life coach. “Repeat what you believe they said. Pay loving attention and make them feel heard.”
Put down your phone
If you’re sitting with your friend, but you’re glued to your phone, you’re not really helping.
“Giving your undivided attention takes power, takes courage and is a true act of love,” Jablin said. “So, put the phone down and be present.”
Mute your notifications or turn your device off for a while and see the difference it makes in the quality of support and attention you’re able to offer.
Offer a safe space
When someone is going through a tough time, they may be hesitant to share their worries because of a fear of being judged. That’s why offering a judgment-free safe space can help.
“Hold a sacred space where your friend can act out in pain, grief, anxiety, doubt and worry—with zero judgment from you,” Jablin said.
“When we are overwhelmed, it feels safe to open up to a friend who is listening with warmth, so a lot of feelings come up,” said Roma Norriss, an intimacy expert.
That, Norriss said, is a good thing.
“The body releases stored-up tension through crying or ranting and raging,” Norriss said. “Your friend will feel much better and be able to come up with good solutions when they have moved these feelings out of the way.”
Tell them their feelings are valid
Going through a tough time can come with added guilt and shame if the person feels like they shouldn’t be feeling this way.
Here, you can be there for someone by telling them their feelings are valid, Franco said. Even simple phrases like, “It’s OK to feel this way,” can help your friend accept their feelings and cope with them better.
Offer minimal affirmations
When a friend is sharing their story, it can be tempting to cut them off and offer advice or share your own similar story, but resist this temptation.
Instead, Norriss suggested sticking to minimal, affirming responses such as “I see” or “that sounds hard” or “I’m really sorry to hear that.” This lets your friend talk their heart out and process their feelings without interruption.
Ask open-ended questions
Another way to be there for a friend and help them process their feelings is to ask open-ended questions, Norriss said. These can help continue the conversation while giving your friend the space to explore their feelings.
Here are some open-ended questions you can use:
- How does that feel?
- Can you tell me more about that?
- What do you think of this?
How not to be there for someone
There are many ways to be there for someone, but here are some ways that can be more harmful than helpful.
Don’t compare their problems to your own
Going through tough times isn’t a competition. Don’t try to one-up your friend by sharing your own problems and stories.
“Every time you share a story, opinion, feedback or advice, you are taking the attention away from your friend and putting it onto yourself,” Norriss said.
Instead, let them explore their feelings without comparing their experiences with your own.
Don’t play therapist
When you’re trying to be there for a friend, be a friend and not a therapist. Don’t try to use clever techniques or solve their problems. Just offer them a safe space and truly listen as a friend. You’re probably not a trained clinician, and being there simply as a friend serves a different (but equally important) purpose.
Don’t dismiss their feelings
It can be tempting to say, “It’s not such a big deal,” or “you’ll get over it.” However, these phrases are far from supportive or reassuring.
“Sometimes being positive and trying to cheer someone up can actually feel very dismissive,” Norriss said.
Don’t try to rush their healing. Let them sit with their pain. Simply offer support.
Don’t force them to tell you things
Everyone shares their troubles at a pace they’re comfortable with. You might want to be there for someone as a friend, but this doesn’t mean you can impose your support on them, said Franco. Don’t say stuff like, “Why aren’t you telling me what’s wrong? I’m your friend! You’re supposed to tell me.”
“Think of support like passing a plate of food,” Franco said. “Someone can take it or not take it. You can’t force it on them.”
Finally, remember, asking for support is not a sign of weakness, she added.
“It’s a sign,” Franco said, “that you know you matter and you value yourself enough to get the help you need.”