“Hey, hope things are going okay. We really should meet up! Let me know if you need anything.”
A lot of us are going through tough times right now, for any number of reasons. While we’re all more sensitive to people’s troubles than ever before, the mundanity and fear of lockdown life has made conversation dry up a little. Difficult times are difficult to talk about and the fear of intruding can sometimes make it easier to stay vague.
Many of us want to check in on the people around us, but instead find ourselves an unwitting participant in a game of “hope you’re okay” tennis. At worst, this can build up walls even further, as people feel more and more inclined to save face.
If you’re unsure about how to broach a genuine discussion, try the 7 tips below:
Avoid being vague
No matter how much you mean it, the “how are you?” text can risk coming across as a little insincere. On separate ends of the phone, it can be difficult for a friend to know if it’s the right moment for them to really open up.
Try to be specific about what you’re thinking:
- “I miss you.”
- “This made me think of you”. Attach a photo, a meme, a social media memory - anything to show they’re genuinely on your mind.
- “I heard that [XYZ] happened. Do you want to talk about it?”
The sentiment’s the same, but it lets your friend know that your words aren’t empty and you’re thinking of them out of love rather than obligation.
Listen, don’t suggest
When we’re concerned about someone, our instinct is to want to help. However, firing out solutions can make things even more intimidating if the person is already overwhelmed.
If their struggle is fresh, it’s likely that they aren’t ready to think about tackling things just yet. Maybe there isn’t a solution, and they just need to blow off steam. Or it might be that they already have a plan in action and would appreciate someone to bounce ideas off.
One of the most valuable questions you can ask is: “do you need advice or do you need to vent?”
Make sure that, either way, you’re validating the person’s feelings. Rather than proving that you’re the best adviser, show that you understand:
- That sounds really tough.
- I’m so sorry this is happening.
- You must be worried about….[concern they’ve expressed]
- It’s pretty natural to feel [emotion they’ve expressed] right now.
- I’m not going anywhere.
- I’m so glad you’re telling me about this.
- You’re right.
You might see this as therapist-speak, and it can certainly feel a little cold and clinical at first. However, as long as you’re treating this person as a friend and not a project, validating their feelings will show that you hear them.
Actions speak loud
Make the hot meal. Send the flowers. Offer to walk the dog.
We often know the good deeds we want to do, but have concerns about being invasive, or helpful on a too-superficial level. However, asking, “is there anything I can do to help?” will rarely lead a person to ask for these kinds of things.
Do remember to bear the individual person and their situation in mind, though. Some people may appreciate an impromptu home visit. Some won’t.
Take a second to evaluate whether you’re doing this because the person will genuinely benefit from it, rather than it just being the biggest and best deed.
Don’t just text
Of course, there are other ways to be present outside of texting. A phone call is more personal but may leave a person feeling like they have to fill the silence.
Cards and postcards are an age-old way of keeping in touch and don’t demand an immediate response. They brighten up a room, and the effort you make to buy, write, and send it won’t go unnoticed.
Popping round for a coffee is another clear way of showing that this person is worth your time. But, again, proceed with caution. If someone has been struggling to stay on top of their housework or personal upkeep, a surprise visit might make them feel ashamed. You might be encroaching on alone time or extra sleep that is really valuable right now.
If you know someone well and feel a visit would boost their spirits, a couple of hours’ notice never hurts! Bring snacks; drag them into the garden. This can act as a small and healthy nudge towards healthy self-care habits, as well as a dose of social time.
Make a plan
If a spontaneous visit is too much, arranging something in the near future may take the pressure off. It’ll give you both time to emotionally prepare - and you can look forward to it.
Back to the part about specificity: suggest a particular activity at a roughly arranged time. Small decisions can be hard for someone who is burnt out or suffering from anxiety. This doesn’t have to be bossy or controlling! Try:
- Do you want to watch that new film while it’s still out?
- I’ve just found the best new bakery. Can I tempt you?
- It’s meant to be nice on Friday. Fancy walking the dogs together?
- Can I take you for a drink next week? My treat!
Don't Expect a response
If this person is struggling as you suspect, it might be difficult for them to find the energy to hold a conversation or construct a convincingly “fine” response. Often, the guilt of not replying can make it even harder as time goes on.
Don’t take it to mean that they don’t want or appreciate your help - although you’re not entitled to their gratitude. If you don’t hear back from someone close to you, most likely they’re quietly thankful but their mind is on other things right now.
That said, if you’re concerned about someone’s immediate mental state, or nobody else you know has heard back from them, take further action to make sure they’re safe and well.
Take care of yourself
Make sure you’re not stretching yourself beyond your means or giving away emotional energy that you don’t have right now. Putting someone else’s needs before your own for an extended time is not healthy for anyone involved.
This doesn’t contradict the last point: it’s more about looking to the past and the future, and making sure that this person would do the same for you were the roles reversed.
Also, make sure that you’re not pushing your help towards other people as a way of deflecting from your own worries. Good deeds feel good, but using them as short-term personal gain will eventually have its consequences.
You don’t have to be an expert on mental health, or someone’s best friend, to check in on them. You don’t have to fix them or say all the right things. They may want to share their worries, or they may want to keep them private.
What’s most important is that they’re still a loved one to you, and that you’re reaching out in a way that invites them in.