NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Friendship: When to Give Advice and When to Just Listen

As adults, we've all been in the position, at one time or another, when we hear from a friend who is upset about a personal situation or a situation at work. It is sometimes difficult to know when our friends just need a sounding board, when we should give advice and when we should refrain from giving advice.

Friendship: When to Give Advice and When to Just Listen

Our Natural Inclination is that We Want to Help Friends
For most of us, our natural inclination is to try to help our friends, if we can. When a friend is upset, it's especially tempting to rush in with advice because we want to relieve the friend's suffering or offer comfort. 

But, without realizing it, we might be stepping into a very tricky situation, especially if the friend is calling about problems in his or her relationship. Although there are no hard and fast rules about this, there are some steps that we can take to ensure that, in the long run, we don't end up causing resentment later on or even ruining the friendship.

Ask Your Friend What She Needs
The first step that we can follow, after we have listened empathically to our friend's problems, is to ask what he or she is looking for from us. This might sound so simple, but in a situation where someone close to us is upset, it's easy to forget and lose sight of this. 

Now, you might say that if your friend is calling you and he or she is upset, of course, your friend is looking for advice. But this isn't always the case, and if you rush in, you might discover that you've misunderstood and you're not at all on your friend's wavelength.

By asking, we're letting our friend know that we want to be helpful in a way that is meaningful to him or her. We're not making any assumptions about what our friend needs or wants--no matter how long we've been friends or how well we think we know the friend. In a moment of upset, our friend might not be able to say what he or she needs, but this question can help him or her to clarify and organize his or her thoughts to be able to reflect on what's needed at that point.

Does Your Friend Want Advice or a Sounding Board?
If what's needed is for you to be a sounding board and nothing else, then your friend is letting you know that he or she just wants to vent and advice is not being sought. 

If your friend is looking for advice, if you choose to give advice, which can be tricky, there are tactful ways to approach this. Most important of all, we can never assume that we know exactly what might be right for our friends.

Does Your Friend Want Advice or a Sounding Board?

So, it's usually better to frame whatever you say by first saying that this is what you would do if you were in this situation (assuming that you have an opinion about it), and this may or may not be what is best for your friend. 

By saying this, you're letting your friend know that you're not assuming that you know what's right for him or her. You're also putting the responsibility for the decision back with your friend, where it belongs. But even this can be tricky. When a friend is calling about relationship problems, it can be especially tricky.

The following fictionalized account illustrates a common scenario where a friend calls for advice:

Susan and Pat:
Susan and Pat were close friends for several years. Pat was in a rocky relationship with Jim for the last two years. Usually, Susan avoided getting caught up in giving Pat advice because she knew that Pat wasn't ready to leave her relationship with Jim, no matter how much Pat complained about it. 

But on this particular day, without realizing it, Susan got caught up in Pat's emotions. Pat was calling for the third time in two weeks to say that Jim was verbally abusive and he wouldn't listen to her when she tried to discuss this with him. Usually, he would walk out and not call her for several days. Then, they would get back together as if nothing had happened.

As Susan listened to Pat crying on the phone, she felt exasperated. It really bothered her to see Pat in so much emotional pain. Before she realized what she was doing, Susan began telling Pat, "You've got to get out of this relationship! He's making you so unhappy. This keeps happening over and over again. He's not going to change." Pat responded by saying that Susan was probably right and, soon after that, she ended the conversation.

After that call, Susan didn't hear from Pat in several days, which was unusual. She left Pat a few messages, but she didn't hear back from her, and Susan began getting concerned. When she finally reached Pat, Pat was terse and aloof with her. At first, Susan couldn't understand what was going on with her friend. When Pat tried to get off the phone quickly, Susan asked Pat if she was angry with her.

Pat was silent for a moment, and then she said that she didn't think they could continue to be friends any more because she felt that Susan didn't like Jim. Susan was stunned and speechless for a moment, still not understanding what was going on. 

Then, Pat reminded Susan about the advice that she had given Pat about leaving Jim. Pat said, "I just couldn't believe that you would say that to me, knowing how much Jim and I love each other. I thought you were my friend, but I feel like you betrayed me. When I told Jim what you said, he got really mad and he said he didn't think you were much of a friend to me. And, you know, Susan, I have to agree with him." And with that, Pat hung up, leaving Susan feeling shocked and hurt.

Use Good Judgment
The scenario above is a common occurrence. In the heat of the moment, a friend calls in distress and complains about a boyfriend. Afterwards, especially if this friend is caught in a dysfunctional pattern, she reverts back to her habitual way of being in her relationship. She might even feel guilty for complaining about her boyfriend. 

Then, she thinks about the conversation where her friend tells her to leave the relationship, and she feels angry with her friend. Let's say, she's no longer in her upset state. She has already reconciled with her boyfriend. At that point, it's easy to blame her friend and feel betrayed rather than reflecting on the dysfunctional cycle that she keeps getting caught in with her boyfriend. I've seen this happen so many times.

Does Your Friend Need Professional Help?
In situations like this, you could understand how someone like Susan might feel exasperated, especially after listening to her friend complain over and over again. 

But, rather than react, it's better to step back after listening and ask your friend how you can be supportive. And if your friend is caught in a dysfunctional cycle and you know that by allowing her to vent to you, she just lets off steam and gets right back into the same cycle, the best thing that you might do is to let her or him know that you're not a professional, and it might be better for your friend to seek professional help with a licensed psychotherapist. 

Not only might this stop the cycle of her complaining to you and then just going right back into the same dysfunctional situation, but by getting professional

It's not always easy to know what to do when friends call on us for help, but by taking a moment to reflect on the situation and asking a friend what he or she needs from us, we can avoid crossing boundaries with our friends that could ruin a friendship.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR therapist, and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individuals and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.